Why Wasn’t the Internet Designed to Be More Secure?

I wasn't there myself, but I heard from colleagues that Tim Berners-Lee (the originator of the WWW) keynoted at London's IP EXPO Europe show earlier this month. He was asked why security wasn't considered more in the beginning of the Internet.

This got me thinking back to those days and asking the same question. Why didn’t we early Internet guys predict the need or put the hours in on security from the start? After all, today there’s a whole industry now dedicated to the challenges of securing the Internet, as well as the data and communications carried over the network. Today, companies like Mimecast fight a never-ending struggle to keep the Internet reasonably secure.

Why didn’t we early Internet guys predict the need or put the hours in on security from the start? The good news is that the world runs on the Internet and there are thousands of smart people and companies working hard and fast to secure it and our data.

But many decades ago, there were so few people on the Internet that most of them knew each other by name. My late mentor, Einar Stefferud used to tell people his address was ‘stef @ any machine on the net.’ We mostly just trusted each other, as research colleagues. Besides, doing never-before-done amazing things is a lot more fun than preventing bad things that were, at the time, completely hypothetical.

For me, that’s all the explanation you should need. But I've plenty of other explanations and here are some of them:

1.  They didn’t know how. When you've just built something new, by definition no one will know how to secure it. The people building them were specialists in all sorts of things, but not, with a few exceptions, security. They hoped that the security people could come in later and fix things up.

2.  They didn’t want to. The early Internet pioneers tended to have a very egalitarian vision of the Internet. They wanted to open possibilities for everyone, not close them off from some people.  While they would have readily said that some security would be needed, it just wasn't what they wanted to work on. The vision of an Internet open to everyone tended to work against any efforts to secure it. Also, there was a lot of belief that anonymity should be possible on the net, so there was substantial resistance to requiring strong authentication of identity.

3. For most people, security was boring. Those who found it interesting generally wanted to work on something heavily used. Even security researchers — and there were some — generally trusted one another.

4.  They feared it might be impossible. It was clear that Internet security would be very complex, and less clear that it would ever be truly possible. For that matter, they weren't entirely sure that what they were trying to build with the Internet was even possible. Nearly all the protocol designers worried about security, and tried to make wise decisions when they could. But it’s hard to secure something before you've designed it.

The good news is that we now know the world loves (even runs) on the Internet and there are thousands of smart people and companies working hard and fast to secure it and our data. Nowadays there are university programs and whole careers to be made in various aspects of the Internet security industry.

It’s still an open question whether we can do so completely. The bad guys are constantly innovating so companies like Mimecast have to be relentless and in it for the long haul. This is a constant battle of cat vs. mouse between the Internet good guys protecting all of us from the bad guys out to steal our data, corrupt our systems or rob us plain and simple.

This is a worthy pursuit for any company, computer science graduate or expert. The world needs more smart, well-educated people worrying about security.

That’s why I’m particularly passionate about the need to get more young people, particularly women, interested in engineering at an early age. It may seem like an uphill battle. But there’s an encouraging shift visible in the emergence of targeted technology clubs and engineering toys designed to appeal to them from companies like Goldieblox, Roominate. Oh, and for the record, I've no financial interests in these firms or the toy industry. It’s just clear to me from my own experience as a parent and now grandparent, that if we inspire early, we can create the talent we need tomorrow.