NET NEWS: Research Urged to Fortify Cyberspace

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Science  09 Oct 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5387, pp. 195
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5387.195b

The Internet and other computer networks are unsecure, unreliable, and will remain that way with existing technologies, according to a new report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel. The report details a plan for a long-term, federally funded research effort to make networks “trustworthy.”

The sprawling growth of the Internet has left it open to hackers and other disruptions, such as rats chewing through cables, according to the report, “Trust in Cyberspace.” Among the vulnerable points where data such as passwords can be stolen are routers that direct data packets and the servers that convert Web page names (like to numerical addresses. Add-on technologies like “firewalls” that shield internal networks can't entirely solve these problems, the report says. “We couldn't make [systems] trustworthy even if we wanted to,” says Cornell University computer scientist Fred Schneider, the panel's chair.

The research needed to plug these gaps is too long-range and risky to interest companies and thus must be supported by the federal government, the report says. Among other things, computer scientists need to study what the major weaknesses are in existing networks, and cryptographers need to develop encryption codes that work for entire networks, not just for individuals exchanging messages. “A surprising number [of these areas] will require revolutionary things,” Schneider says.

The report, requested by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Security Agency, is expected to provide a blueprint for research spending in the year 2000 budget, says NRC staffer Alan Inouye. But which agencies will spend exactly how much money, he says, is the “subject of ongoing debate.”

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