Vinton Cerf, Internet Father: Outer-Space Tech Will Solve Cyberspace Problems

Vinton Cerf, Father of the Internet
Vinton Cerf

Google executive Vinton Cerf says a tool for securing warfighting networks is “waiting in the interplanetary Internet,” which he and NASA have been developing for a decade and are now testing.

The outer-space Internet is designed to regulate data transmission among outer-space devices, and he said, “We will be applying alien technology to our terrestrial requirements.”

Cerf detailed three key vulnerabilities the new administration will have to address: information security, dwindling user space on the Internet, and the lack of a system for monetizing digital information. He spoke to government and technology industry leaders at a TechAmerica-sponsored gathering Wednesday.

In an interview with Nextgov after the event, Cerf said in November, NASA successfully tested deep space data transmission and will soon do the same on the International Space Station.

“This is moving ahead after a 10-year period of gestation,” he said. “So, for me, this is like a science-fiction dream that’s finally coming true.”

The experiment, sponsored by NASA’s space operations mission directorate, will see $6.2 billion in funds in the 2010 budget to cover the full scope of NASA’s space operations.

Glitches due to solar storms, long communication delays or a spacecraft moving behind a planet are particular to outer space and necessitate a more robust infrastructure than the terrestrial networks Cerf helped create. Rather than relying on a continuous, end-to-end connection, each network node (i.e. an orbiter or lander) hangs on to its data until a secure connection is established.

Another terrestrial problem is the dwindling number of IP addresses computers use to go online under Internet Protocol version 4. This is a pressing concern with the growing proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices worldwide, and especially because IPv4 only provides 4 billion addresses, only 2/3 the number of Earth’s inhabitants. Next-gen Internet, IPv6, provides enough space for 3 billion networks for each person on the planet, according to Google.

But the transition won’t be as easy as flipping a switch.

“It’s vital that we get IPv4 and IPv6 running in parallel,” Cerf said. He added that Google is already trying to do this with its online services. He also warned of “the incomplete Internet,” which “still lacks many features that it needs.” The most important missing piece: authentication. Digitally signed domain names have not caught on in cyberspace yet, and there is no standard-mail sender authentication practice.

Additionally, he noted “digital economics” are transforming industry, notably publishing. “The business models built around particular media have to be rethought” because “control of copies was the way copyright protection was conferred” but the Internet has turned out to be a “giant copying machine.”

When asked how the administration should empower people with information, Cerf replied, “If you think information is power, you’re wrong. Information sharing is power.”

Cerf said he anticipates federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra will play a strong role in developing standards to enable smart grids, health IT and better information-sharing encryption. One yardstick for progress: fewer incidences of identity theft, he said.

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