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Internet’s dad: Responsibility a big part of computer science

Original Article | News

As appeared in Daily Progress, January 30, 2010

By Brian McNeil

Vinton Cerf, known as a father of the Internet and the chief Internet evangelist at Google, told a crowd of University of Virginia computer science students and faculty members Friday that the Internet is rapidly evolving and much more work must be done to make it secure.

“We will face a very fragile future if we don’t take the responsibility of doing the research into making systems more secure for us to use,” Cerf said, speaking in the Rotunda Dome Room at a 25th anniversary celebration of UVa’s computer science department.

Cerf co-designed the TCP/IP protocols that are the basic architecture of the Internet while working at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. And as vice president of MCI Digital Information Services from 1982 to 1986, Cerf led the engineering of the first commercial e-mail service connected to the Internet.

At his talk Friday, Cerf noted that the Internet has expanded far beyond its roots as a network of computers for researchers and the military. An estimated 1.7 billion people worldwide use the Internet, he said, which is roughly 25.6 percent of the world’s population. In North America, there are 252.9 million Internet users, representing 74.2 percent of the population.

With so many people relying on the Internet, Cerf said, computer scientists have a responsibility to develop better and more secure operating systems, Web browsers and authentication systems.

“We can’t, as computer scientists, ignore the fact that we have a social responsibility to make things more reliable and more secure,” he said.

Cerf rattled off a long list of security threats and other problems facing Internet users. Hackers are able to infect unsecured Web sites with viruses. Spam continues to clog e-mail inboxes. Users too often rely on poorly chosen passwords that enable malicious people to access their accounts.

“The passwords people pick are terrible,” he said. “Some people pick ‘password.’”

Another hard-to-avoid problem, Cerf added, is the possibility of “spectacular human error.” He cited a recent example at Google in which an employee accidentally placed a slash in the wrong place and inadvertently caused every Web site found through Google to be listed as a security threat for around 30 minutes.

Google has been in the news recently for being on the receiving end of malicious hacker attacks in China. “We have no clear indication of who they were or where they were from or if they were from China,” Cerf said. “We have a lot of indications pointing to that. We don’t know their motivations.”

When building the foundation of the Internet, Cerf said, the designers knew that many of these problems would crop up and eventually need solutions.

“If we’d tried to solve all these problems then, we’d never have gotten the Internet to work at all,” he said. “Now we need to address these issues.”

Cerf called for better “cyber hygiene,” meaning improved methods of sweeping computers for potential hazards.

He also called for better authentication tools that would allow users to sign a “digital signature” and verify exactly who they are communicating with online. Such a tool, he said, would let people enter into contract agreements with one another over the Internet.

Yet another possible problem, Cerf said, is that so much of modern life is encapsulated in computer programs that might not be compatible with the programs of the future. Many people, for example, rely on PowerPoint to give business presentations. Viewers increasingly watch digital video. Data are often displayed in Excel spreadsheets. Hundreds of years into the future, he said, there is a good chance that none of this information will be accessible because they run on proprietary software that may not exist anymore.

“What I’m concerned about is, this century, we may lose a great deal of the history about us,” he said.

Cerf’s speech was the headline act at the computer science department’s quarter-century celebration. Mary Lou Soffa, who chairs the department in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, gave the crowd an idea of what to expect from the department during the next 25 years.

“We’re building to the future,” she said.

UVa’s computer science department, she said, is aiming to grow more diverse with more women and minorities in the student and faculty bodies. It will boost fundraising efforts to be more self-reliant. It will be more competitive for large-scale research projects. And it will be relocating soon into a new building that will allow research into a number of fields, including RFID, smart homes and the security of medical records.