Those inclined to don the tinfoil cap won't be reassured by Vint Cerf's offhand observation in a Google Hangout on Wednesday that, back in the mid 1970s, the world's favorite intelligence agency may have also stood in the way of stronger network layer security being a part of the original specification for TCP/IP — the Internet's lingua franca.
As noted on Veracode's blog (http://blog.veracode.com/2014/04/cerf-classified-nsa-work-mucked-up-security-for-early-tcpip/), Cerf said that given the chance to do it over again he would have designed earlier versions of TCP/IP to look and work like IPV6, the latest version of the IP protocol with its integrated network-layer security and massive 128 bit address space. IPv6 is only now beginning to replace the exhausted IPV4 protocol globally.
“If I had in my hands the kinds of cryptographic technology we have today, I would absolutely have used it,” Cerf said. (Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...)
Researchers at the time were working on just such a lightweight cryptosystem. On Stanford’s campus, Cerf noted that Whit Diffie and Martin Hellman had researched and published a paper that described the functioning of a public key cryptography system. But they didn’t yet have the algorithms to make it practical. (Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman published the RSA algorithm in 1977).
As it turns out, however, Cerf revealed that he _did_ have access to some really bleeding edge cryptographic technology back then that might have been used to implement strong, protocol-level security into the earliest specifications of TCP/IP. Why weren’t they used? The culprit is one that’s well known now: the National Security Agency.
Cerf told host Leo Laporte that the crypto tools were part of a classified NSA project he was working on at Stanford in the mid 1970s to build a secure, classified Internet.
“During the mid 1970s while I was still at Stanford and working on this, I also worked with the NSA on a secure version of the Internet, but one that used classified cryptographic technology. At the time I couldn’t share that with my friends,” Cerf said. “So I was leading this kind of schizoid existence for a while.”
Hindsight is 20:20, as the saying goes. Neither Cerf, nor the NSA nor anyone else could have predicted how much of our economy and that of the globe would come to depend on what was then a government backed experiment in computer networking. Besides, Cerf didn't elaborate on the cryptographic tools he was working with as part of his secure Internet research or how suitable (and scalable) they would have been.
But it’s hard to listen to Cerf lamenting the absence of strong authentication and encryption in the foundational protocol of the Internet, or to think about the myriad of online ills in the past two decades that might have been preempted with a stronger and more secure protocol and not wonder what might have been."
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