Vinton G. “Vint” Cerf is the man who helped craft the internet. But even decades after his creation moved from government research labs and into the commercial world, it still remains a work in progress.
Even though it underlies 21st-century commerce, art, entertainment, government and most forms of communication in the developed world, it is constantly under siege – both in terms of security and the way people behave online.
“We are very vulnerable,” Cerf told a crowd Thursday evening at the Baker Institute on the Rice University campus. “No matter how secure you make software, if there is one hole, someone will find it.”
Cerf, 75, was one of the architects of the software, along with Robert Kahn, on which most of the internet runs. Called TCP/IP – Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol – it is the global network’s base layer of software. And yet, Cerf said, what was eventually released from his labs and placed into the hands of the public, businesses and government was not completed.
“Bob and I thought that this was just an experiment, and it turns out when we let the internet loose as a commercial network, we were releasing an experimental version,” he said.
Evidence of its unfinished state appeared in the mid-2000s, when it became apparent that the internet would soon run out of IP addresses, the numeric assignments that make sure each device on the network is considered unique. Called IPv4, the assignment system only had 4.3 billion things, and Cerf said that “in 2011, we ran out of addresses.”
A standards body came up with with IPv6, which Cerf calls “the production version of the internet”, which has several “trillion trillion trillion” addresses. Cerf spent much of the mid-2000s advocating the adoption of IPv6, largely as part of his current job as Google’s “Internet Evangelist.”
WHO GOES THERE: Bots of the Internet, reveal yourselves!
During his presentation, Cerf outlined the serious challenges facing the internet, including the issue of poorly written software that threatens the security and the reliability of the network. He warned against the growing number of devices called the “internet of things” that talk to each other and to cloud-based servers.
Many of these devices – such as smart home products, routers, thermostats and industrial control systems – aren’t easily upgraded and have buggy software that could be exploited. The result could be a hacker taking control of thousands or even millions of devices for nefarious ends, he said.
“We can’t say anymore, ‘Oh, it’s just a bug,'” Cerf said. “We have to write better software. And there have to be consequences for companies that generate bad software and then don’t fix it.”
Programmers, he added, “need to be taught that they have an ethical responsibility to create quality software.”
Subscribe to the Chronicle for regular access to TechBurger stories and to be able to comment.