We occupy a richly-connected world. On the Internet, we collapse distance and shift time. But this Internet that delivers mail, connects us with friends, lets us work anywhere, and shop from the palm of the hand, is a mere 50 years old, slightly younger than Jennifer Aniston and Matt Perry.
On October 29, 1969, UCLA computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock was supervising programming student Charley Kline, who sent a message from his school’s computer to a computer in Douglas Engelbart’s laboratory at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA.
Attempting to log onto the SRI computer, Kleinrock was able to transmit just two characters—LO—before the connection failed. Thus, the first transmission had a security problem: lack of availability.
From this inauspicious beginning, the Internet was born because this was the first connection on a wide area network using a new technology called packet switching.
In the 1960s, computers were common in universities, big businesses, and government research operations, but every computer was a closed system.
Imagine integrating them into a network of networks, enabling collaboration among researchers worldwide. That was the vision behind the Arpanet, the system Kleinrock developed. Though its demonstration ran afoul of connectivity issues, it was designed to be resilient to the unreliability of network connections.
During the 1950s Cold War, the Air Force wanted to harden its radar system to survive a nuclear attack and respond, making a crippling first strike by an enemy less appealing. The solution, developed by Paul Baran and Donald Davies, encompassed a decentralized network, packaging data into small chunks. This packet-switching technology was at the Arpanet’s core.
The Arpanet was designed for resilience but not security. That became a problem. With hundreds of hosts, each with their own ideas about networking, managing communication was challenging.
In 1973, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf developed a new approach. The differences among local network protocols would be masked by a common internetwork protocol, relegating details to the host networks.
It took a decade to re-engineer this core technology of the network of networks. Kahn and Cerf’s TCP/IP protocols were implemented on January 1, 1983. The next year, the number of nodes surpassed 1,000, and it was soon renamed the Internet.
Other developments in the 1980s began to transform the Internet into a place for the general public, including the introduction of Domain Name Servers turning cryptic numerical Internet addresses into readable names like WhiteHouse.gov and Stanford.edu. In 1989 at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and the first web browser, transforming the Internet into a virtual world. The dedicated public information services turned into websites, as did libraries and stores, and seemingly everything.
But this public use made the Internet attractive to bad actors. A year before the web, the world got a wake-up call when the Morris worm largely brought down the Internet. The malicious software infected an estimated 10 percent of servers on the net and it took days to remove the worm. Robert Morris, its creator, was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine.
The Internet’s carefree days were over. New attacks occurred, each one generating a news story. But before long, there were too many to count.
The Internet has become, in the words of Kleinrock, who sent that first message with his student, “a pervasive global nervous system.” But at the core it is still the same Arpanet created 50 years ago, and this is a mixed blessing. The Internet is rugged, but motivated actors can cause trouble, and risks are outpacing advances.
Online banking and shopping are convenient, until someone steals your password or identity. You enjoy the benefits of the richly connected life, so long as you are vigilant about spam, adware, Trojans, viruses, worms, phishing, spyware, and keyloggers. System admins fight attacks, but a lot of it comes down to you, the user.
After 50 years, we are still in the early days of this transformation in our society. But we can see the future in tech labs and startups today.
As we move into virtual worlds, the Internet is also going to be moving into us. Going to the doctor will be less necessary as implanted sensors feed and read from cloud-based medical diagnostic software. Your emotional reaction to a commercial is of value: Advertisers will be willing to pay to understand those reactions in real time.
Add your own scenarios. The richly connected future is bright and strange. The Arpanet’s prescient foundation will enable unimagined uses beyond the present-day Internet. But the urgency of protecting the Internet from bad actors is also increasing, and the stakes will get higher.
The security of the Internet could be the determining factor of it reaching the next phase of its potential.