I attended to pitch in on JSON and OAuth work, and because it was here in Vancouver. But this meeting was really about defending the Internet from those attacking it. Which is worth everyone’s attention and deserves more explanation than I’ve seen in the mainstream media.
Having said that about the mainstream, Besieged (in The Economist) is not terrible.
The Flavor of the IETF · If you read The Tao of IETF you’ll know most of the things that matter, and if you care about the Internet you likely should. Let me add flavor:
You see a lot of grey beards, from which you can deduce two things: First, some of the people here have been designing the Internet for a long time, and second, the representation of women is, as in most information-technology contexts, dismal.
The term “IETF greybeard” is sometimes used disparagingly. I’ve heard
this from women lamenting the syndrome, common in so many milieux, of the
unofficial cabal of old white guys who run everything. Second, from people
with interesting or surprising new ideas which are getting nitpicked to death
at endless length by said greybeads.
[Disclosure: I have a grey beard.]
In every session, a high proportion of people have laptops or tablets lit up. On a high proportion of those screens, one or more windows contain the colorful monospaced visual rhythms of code.
A small but significant proportion of the people doing the work and
attending the meetings have received funding from national intelligence
agencies. An even smaller but nonzero proportion are employees of
[Disclosure: A company I co-founded sold software to the NSA while I was there; I have been inside Fort Meade and spoken at a large intelligence-community conference.]
The IETF moves slowly. Maddeningly so. On the other hand, given the importance of the Internet to human civilization, you don’t want to fuck with it incautiously. So the speed may be appropriate.
The IETF famously operates on the basis of “rough consensus and running code”. That consensus is very rough, sometimes. Given any particular piece of work the IETF is pursuing, it’s not hard to find a participant — a greybeard, even — who will explain at length why that work is misguided and dangerous. As for the code... well, you’re using it right now to read this.
Shared Beliefs · Remember about the consensus being rough. Having said that, I feel pretty comfortable saying that the people who build and maintain the Internet in general, and a whole lot of IETF participants in particular, feel that:
Pervasive surveillance, of the kind revealed in the Snowden-sourced documents, constitutes a misguided and damaging attack on civic society in general and the Internet in particular.
Targeted surveillance of individuals, which in civilized societies requires approval from a judge, is not what we’re grouchy about.
To quote Snowden: The crypto is good but the end-points are weak. So the endpoints are where work to increase the security and privacy of the people who use the Net will likely have the best payoff.
Whenever we increase the proportion of Internet traffic that’s encrypted, we increase the cost and decrease the utility of pervasive surveillance. So let’s do that.
What Bruce said · I mean Bruce Schneier, probably the world’s single most visible cryptographer and security geek. Back in September, he called, in Take Back the Internet, for the IETF to “dedicate its next meeting” to these problems; that essay is worth reading.
So he got an invitation and appeared at the “Technical Plenary”, our all-hands meeting which is often less-than-gripping but on this occasion pretty well filled the largest room the hotel had.
I captured some soundbites from that session; most but not all are from Bruce, but unfortunately I neglected to note the speaker:
“We’ll probably never know which products have been subverted.”
“The loss of ephemeral conversation”
“Amazing as it seems, the NSA had no contingency plan for the leakage.”
“Corporations have a cost/benefit analysis. Pre-Snowden there was no cost to co-operation. Now it’s different.”
“The goal is to make eavesdropping expensive.”
“We probably won’t win the stop-doing-this argument, but might win on tell-us-about-it.”
“More people should start running Tor exit nodes. Nobody’s ever been prosecuted.”
“We can not have a free society under self-censorship.”
“Pervasive surveillance is an attack.”
TLS · Transport Layer Security I mean, the technology that’s in play when you see the little lock in your browser bar. It means two things: First, that the communication is encrypted and hence private; Second, that you can be pretty sure that the address in the browser bar is really who you’re talking to.
I discussed this in Private By Default, and argued that that’s how everything on the Internet should be.
I think that a lot of IETF participants would agree; and almost everyone who understands the issue would agree that it would blow a hole in the whole pervasive-surveillance thing.
But there’s a lot of pushback against making TLS compulsory: I hear arguments that it’s too expensive, too complicated, screws up load balancing, may exclude poorer parts of the world, and so on. I think those arguments are largely wrong, but I acknowledge that they exist and that the chances of switching the whole Net over to private-by-default, at least in the short term, are pretty remote.
Opportunistic Encryption ·
This was probably the biggest idea floating around at IETF 88. Right
at the moment, if a URL begins with
https: you get TLS and if
http: you don’t. But why should it be that way?
There are proposals to deploy technology where, even when you hit an
http: link, the infrastructure quietly turns on TLS.
Now, it might not be quite first-class TLS; while the privacy promise would still stand, your confidence about who you’re really talking to might not be as strong. But it would still drive up the cost of pervasive surveillance. Maybe by really a lot.
Stay tuned. It might turn out not to work, and the greybeards might nitpick it to death. But maybe not.
The IETF matters · It’s horribly flawed in lots of ways, but it’s essential in getting the Internet built and maintained. I’m lucky to have had a chance to help out in tiny little ways here and there, and hope to again.