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TCP/IP daddy Cerf: 'Don't rewrite the internet for security'

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Google Atmosphere There is no need to rewrite the basic internet protocols to beef up security, Vint Cerf has said. He also warned that governments are making increasingly heavy-handed attempts to take control of the interwebs.

Cerf, co-creator of TCP/IP and currently chief internet evangelist at Google, told delegates at the Atmosphere conference in Mountain View, California, that it was perfectly possible to add security features to the basic internet protocols without requiring a ground-up rewrite, simply by using currently available technology.

“The technology is available to do the job, it can be adapted,” he explained. “Don’t listen to those who tell you it can’t be adapted.”

He said that he’d built a secure version of the internet back in 1975 for the American military, but because the work was classified he couldn’t share the technology. However, as moves like DNSSec showed, the basic open internet structure could be adapted.

It is important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, Cerf warned, particularly on the identity front. There should always be a place for anonymous use of the internet, although tougher security protocols should be available for situations that warranted them – with Cerf highlighting two-factor authentication as a useful example.

However, the role of certification authorities has shown that there is significant room for improvement. Today’s internet is a “hostile environment,” he warned, and the hacking of certification authorities has shown that the model needs serious revision.

Some of the voices calling for change have come from governments that are seeking a greater level of control over the internet, a development of great concern to Cerf. He described the seizure of domains by the US Department of Homeland Security as an example of heavy-handed control, and said that some of the measures being introduced to protect intellectual property were similarly over the top.

“Historically, governments have felt in control on communications mediums,” he explained. “But internet packets don’t recognize borders, and this generates a lot of tension. Governments that feel fragile are concerned, and this is emerging in form of countries seeking control over internet.”

Looking ahead, Cerf acknowledged that there may be a replacement for the internet, which could do a similar job in a more efficient way. But any solution should be open, he said. When asked if the inventor of a better internet would be advised to open source their code, or hire a patent attorney and get copyright, Cerf’s answer was simplicity itself.

“Shoot the patent lawyer,” he joked. “Bob [Kahn] and I knew we would not succeed if we tried to protect our internet design and we published openly to remove any barrier, or excuse for adoption. It worked out pretty well.” ®

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