Six Lines

Security and Privacy in 2014

Posted by Aaron Massey on 05 Jan 2014.

John Markoff interviewed Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who were the two co-inventors of TCP and IP, about the future of the Internet. Obviously, the future of security and privacy is a critical question, but the fact that this is not fundamentally a question about technology is less obvious. Here’s what Robert Kahn has to say in the interview:

Is there a solution to challenges of privacy and security?

In the 1990s when I was on the National Internet Infrastructure Advisory Committee, Al Gore showed up as vice president, and he made an impassioned pitch for Clipper chip [an early government surveillance system]. He said, “We need to be very aware of the needs of national security and law enforcement.” Even though the private sector was arguing for tight encryption, the federal government needed [to be able to conduct surveillance]. It never went, and it’s not anywhere today. I think it’s probably easier to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem than it is to solve this.

Note in particular that last sentence. Security and privacy are social problems. This fundamental truth has implications for technologists. You can’t ignore it and be successful. Ultimately, all technologies are tools to be used by people for some human-defined purpose. No technology will “solve” these problems. Kahn points this out later in the interview:

Would it be possible to start over and build a new Internet to solve the problems the current Internet faces?

You can’t do a wholesale replacement. If you think there is too much spam today, tell me what your solution is for it, because if you design a clean slate Internet and you don’t have a solution for spam, you’re going to have spam on your clean slate Internet and you’re going to have an argument for yet another clean slate Internet because that one didn’t work. It’s like saying we have crime in society, so let’s blow up the planet and build a new one. There will probably be crime on the new planet.

If I could recommend a New Year’s Resolution for all technologists or technology policy advocates, it would be to focus on the nature of the problems they’re trying to solve. Problems that are fundamentally human won’t be solved with technology. Nuclear weapons didn’t stop war, they just raised the stakes. Phonographs didn’t stop musical performance, they changed the way we appreciate it. Thinking that technology can solve fundamentally human problems is sort of like thinking that a new combine harvester will obviate the need to eat. It’s neither true nor helpful in developing a better combine.