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12/13/2016
11:00 AM
Paul Vixie
Paul Vixie
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The Internet Of Things: When Bigger Is Not Better

What happens when 10,000 companies add programmability and connectivity to their products, and we increase the Internet's attack surface by a million times or more?

Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, on a psychological level at least. There was a time when parents and teenagers could not instantly reach each other in times of stress, which made the task of “checking in” far more difficult and dubious than it is today. The problem with magic of this kind is that most people have no idea how it works, and more importantly, how it can break. For example, after every disaster reported in the mainstream press since the dawn of the “cellphone” era, way too many of us have tried to make way too many calls to check on, or check in with, our loved ones. And, in that moment, we learn that there is not enough system capacity for everybody to use their cell phone at the same time. Engineering economists call this “overcommit” and it’s required for commercial success.

As technology’s advance continues and accelerates, more and more of us move from the “sort of knows how things work” to the “wow, it’s like magic” category. This is inevitable and perhaps partly beneficial, but it also creates some new problems. For example, if we find that our Internet gateway just stops working at random intervals, we might order a NetReset Automater Power Cycler (that’s a real thing) to power off our unreliable Internet gateway device for a few minutes every 24 hours. This story would be absurd if it weren’t true, because we are adding complexity to a situation we already don’t understand. In the long run, on which very few of us can focus reliably or persistently, this will make our situation worse. That the NetReset device costs more than most of the Internet gateway devices it protects adds more fuel to the absurdity; where was the invisible hand of the market when we needed it?

Simple math tells us that if you increase the number of innovative products and services that involve connecting things to the Internet, without being able to increase the number of years of experience of the average programmer writing software for those products and services, then you will feel the effect when newly created technology suffers from misbehaviors and vulnerabilities that should have been stamped out long ago.

Similarly, if you increase the number of companies for whom software is essential to the function of their products, without increasing the availability of software development and quality assurance engineers, you’ll get more so-called 0-days, more abandon-ware whose makers have long since gone out of business, and more danger and confusion all over the Internet where these naïve or abandoned devices will mostly live forever.

It’s been said that under capitalism, half the world starves and the other half is obese, whereas without capitalism, we would all starve. No ideology in history has coupled ambition to success in the way that capitalism has done, and it’s safe to say that humanity’s best innovators will be capitalists for the foreseeable future. But what this means for our online safety and privacy is that time-to-market and total lifetime revenue will remain the top concerns of all successful innovators. The unsuccessful ones - who prioritize product safety as well as customer privacy and autonomy over total revenue - will be found unfit in Darwin’s terms, and their assets will be bought after their bankruptcies by successful innovators who treated product safety as a nice-to-have, not a got-to-have.

As long as criminals, government security agencies, corporations, and other groups want to monitor, predict, and control the populations and economies they’re part of, we’ll see every available information leak, every software defect, and every device vulnerability deployed against individual privacy and autonomy. Simply put, any actual privacy or autonomy held by any individual is outside of the interests of one or more larger groups. That’s just human nature at scale; please don’t shoot the messenger.

The technology landscape of 2016 includes vast trackless wilds of products and services understood by few, if any, of their makers, and fewer, if any, of their customers. We are already becoming a “cargo cult,” dependent on a supply chain full of components we could not re-invent ourselves if the need arose. The best invention in the history of the world is the Internet, which has been constructed organically by generations of cooperators who mostly never met or knew each other. New malicious and criminal uses for this invention are discovered every hour, and the complexity and self-healing properties of the Internet have already made it impossible, in any practical sense, to understand, or censor, or secure it. If you doubt this, then by all means go out and try to stop a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.

Before the Internet, most threats were physical. We could rely on the police and the courts to deter domestic property crime for the most part, and we could reasonably expect the nation’s armed forces to protect us from nation-state attacks. Those risks which remained were well enough understood that we could manage them with insurance contracts and surety bonds. No longer. The Internet is borderless, threats are no longer mostly physical, and our risks are too endless to be understood or managed. Every company and family and device and program that connects to the Internet must be fully prepared at all times to defend against attackers who have studied our software and our hardware better than we have, and who almost always know more about our vulnerabilities than we do.

So, when the Internet of Things pushes 10,000 companies to add programmability and connectivity to their products, and we increase the Internet’s attack surface by a million times (or more), and we do it with fresh undamaged programmers who use unsafe tools like the C or C++ programming languages in their work, we should expect a dramatic shift – not merely of amount but in kind – as to the quality of every individual’s lived experience. Perhaps that terrifyingly unpleasant outcome will finally produce a market for testing and certification of “Internet Safe” technology. Right now, we consumers want more bling more often, and safety be damned.  

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Dr. Paul Vixie is an Internet pioneer and thought leader who designed, implemented, and deployed several Domain Name System (DNS) protocol extensions and applications that are used throughout the Internet today. He is CEO of Farsight Security Inc. Previously, he served as ... View Full Bio
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