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11/14/2013
03:00 PM
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NSA Leaks Bolster IETF Work On Internet Security

The Internet Engineering Task Force's efforts to add security to the Internet's protocols have been reinvigorated by fallout from revelations of controversial NSA spying programs

Ongoing efforts to beef up the security of the Internet's underlying protocols may have gotten a major boost, thanks to the National Security Agency (NSA).

Officials from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) today said last week's plenary meeting of the body charged with developing protocols for the Net was dominated with talk of better securing the Internet to thwart wide-scale surveillance akin to those programs leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"There is noticeable momentum," said Stephen Farrell, IETF Security Area Director, today in a press briefing on last week's IETF 88 Plenary in Vancouver.

Among some of the IETF security efforts that could see the light of day relatively soon is work on guidance for easily "turning on" encryption between email servers. Farrell says email providers already are looking at this, and the hope is they will roll it out "in a matter of months."

"Clearly, there's a very long-term question: With a lot of technology things you can do, there remains an adversary willing to spend a lot of effort and money and [who] will still be able to extract metadata from various protocols," Farrell said. "But we can make it significantly harder to launch the pervasive attacks we've been seeing."

New IETF protocols don't get written or adopted overnight, however. The voluntary, open committee process for proposing and ultimately releasing a protocol specification can take years, even for some of the most straightforward technologies. Security is even tougher. "None of the solutions in securing the Internet is necessarily easy," noted IETF chair Jari Arkko. "You need backward compatibility, interoperability among different parties, and different components."

The Snowden leaks helped spur an about-face by the IETF in its work on the next-generation Web protocol, HTTP 2.0. In March 2012, the HTTPbis Working Group charged with the HTTP 2.0 work decided against encryption by default using the Transport Layer Security protocol. The working group has since decided to rethink that in the wake of the NSA Internet surveillance revelations.

Also on the table is work on securing the transport protocols underlying the Net. One notable effort is a proposed protocol for adding encryption directly to the TCP protocol itself. There's also a working group forming to cover security in application-layer protocols, including instant messaging, for example.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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