Reinventing the Internet to Make It Safer

Reinventing the Internet to Make It Safer
Dec 2 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — What if it isn’t too late to start from scratch?

It was only about 40 years ago that Vinton G. Cerf and Robert E. Kahn holed up in the conference room of a Hyatt hotel in Palo Alto, Calif., and sketched out the sets of rules and protocols that laid the foundation of the modern Internet.

Despite big advances in speed, performance, memory and machines, their decisions continue to form the basis for modern digital communications — much to the detriment of security, some experts argue.

But the United States government is teaming up with computer scientists to do something about it.

Five years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, decided to explore what the Internet might look like if we could rebuild the computer systems from the ground up, employing the hard lessons we have learned about security. The idea was simple, yet seemingly impossible.

After a year of record-setting hacking incidents, companies and consumers are finally learning how to defend themselves and are altering how they approach computer security.

The program, called Clean Slate, consisted of two separate but related efforts: Crash — short for Clean-Slate Design of Resilient, Adaptive, Secure Hosts — a multiyear project aimed at building systems that were much harder to break into, that could continue to fully function when they were breached and that could heal themselves, and MRC, short for Mission-Oriented Resilient Clouds, which applied similar thinking to computer networking and cloud computing.

While Clean Slate was designed to make machines more aware of their environment, a separate effort at Darpa, called Active Authentication, is intended to make machines more aware of their operator. The program is exploring ways that machines could recognize humans by analyzing behavior, like a typing pattern, rather than a password or a fingerprint.

The Clean Slate programs were designed to run for only four years. The Crash program finished last year, though three of its projects have continued for a fifth year. The MRC program will wrap up this year.

With the advent of cloud computing and shiny new phones, tablets and watches, it can be easy to forget that in many ways our computer systems are still very old.

“The software we run, the programming language we use and the architecture of the chips we use haven’t changed much in over 30 years,” Howard E. Shrobe, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a recent phone interview.

Dr. Shrobe and others note that the Internet’s basic design decisions were made when computer hardware was significantly more expensive than it is today. Forty years later, the consequences of decisions made in those resource-constrained days remain.

“Everything was built with performance, not security, in mind,” Dr. Shrobe said. “We left it to programmers to incorporate security into every line of code they wrote. One little mistake is all it takes for the bad guy to get in.”