Study finds support for presidential Net 'kill switch'

Majority of participants in Unisys survey favor giving president authority to control or "kill" portions of the Internet in the event of a malicious cyberattack.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

If the U.S. were hit by a severe cyberattack, would you want the president to be able to control or even shut down portions of the Internet?

A majority 61 percent of Americans polled by Unisys for a new security study believes the president should have the power to control or effectively "kill" portions of the Internet if key U.S. systems (military, financial, electrical) were hit by a malicious cyberattack from a foreign government.

These findings from the latest biannual Unisys Security Index suggest that the public may support a pending cybersecurity bill that would give the president greater authority over the Internet in the event of an emergency. Formally known as the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, or PCNAA, the bill (PDF) would grant the government the power to force Internet providers, search engines, software firms, and other private companies to comply with emergency measures established by the Department of Homeland Security.

Because it would give the federal government far-reaching control over the private sector, the bill has naturally triggered concerns and criticisms on the part of different industry and civil liberties groups. But the bill's main proponent, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, has defended it, citing national and economic security concerns in the event of a cyberattack.

"A majority of the American population is willing to grant the president the authority to cut short their Internet access to protect both U.S. assets and citizens, suggesting that the public is taking cyberwarfare very seriously," Patricia Titus, vice president and chief information security officer of Unisys, said in a statement. "Our survey shows that the American public recognizes the danger of a cyberattack and wants the federal government to take an active role in extending the nation's cyberdefense. It will be up to officials in all branches of the federal government to respond to this call to action in a way that is measured and well planned."


Overall, the poll found national security and financial security were the biggest areas of concern to the American public. More than half (59 percent) said they were extremely or very concerned about the country's national security in relation to war or terrorism, 57 percent were concerned about identify theft, and 57 percent were concerned about credit card and debit card fraud.

The one area triggering less anxiety is Internet security, according to the poll. The number of Americans "not concerned" about computer security related to viruses or spam rose to 34 percent, the highest since Unisys started the index in late 2007. The number of people "seriously concerned" about the security of shopping or banking online dropped to 34 percent from 43 percent in February.

Americans are trying to protect themselves online, noted Unisis, with 80 percent saying they limit access to personal information on social networks and 73 percent who claimed they update their antivirus software. But fewer than half (46 percent) said they use and update complex passwords on their computers.

To compile its U.S. Security Index, Unisys commissioned the independent research firm Lieberman Research Group (no connection to Joseph Lieberman), which surveyed 1,004 people in the U.S. who were 18 and older from August 20 to 22 of this year.