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Executive interview: Towards the internet and beyond

Fifty years ago, a computer at UCLA communicated with another at SRI International, laying the first stepping stone towards the global internet

In the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) was set up by the US Department of Defense to investigate how to build resilient networking between geographically dispersed computers.

The first four computers to communicate between two different sites took place on 29 October 1969 and represented a significant moment in history. They were the first Arpanet packets, says Pat Lincoln, director of the computer science laboratory at research institute SRI International. The network packets were transmitted from the University of California (UCLA) to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the two sites hosted the first four computers connected to the Arpanet.

At SRI International, Lincoln leads research in the fields of formal methods, computer security and privacy, computational biology, scalable distributed systems and nanoelectronics. Discussing the important research that took place at Arpa during those early days of the internet,  he says: “Other firsts in those early years were significant, in part because they were the first large-scale implementation of packet-switching, a concept invented by Paul Buran at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], but which Arpa, led by several brilliant visionaries, took to reality through several stages.”

Lincoln leads a multidisciplinary group conducting high-impact research projects in symbolic systems biology, scalable anomaly detection, exquisitely sensitive biosensor systems, strategic reasoning and game theory, and privacy-preserving data-sharing.

He says that thanks to the exponential drop in the price of computer chips predicted by the researchers at Arpa, through what is now called Moore’s Law, meant that packet-switched networks could be dramatically better, faster and cheaper. “Those predictions, driven by the unrelenting progression of Moore’s Law, led to the digital networks we use today all over the world,” says Lincoln.

Explosion of misuse

But opening up electronic communications has led to an explosion of misuse. According to Lincoln, since the early days of the computer revolution, people have worried about the threat posed by malicious attackers, malicious software, or malicious manipulation of information. “The internet, internet-connected devices and the new social media landscape provide unprecedented leverage for attackers, and thus have amplified the concerns about the threats posed,” he says.

Lincoln is also executive director of SRI’s programme for the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Security Research and Development Center, and is confident that researchers and the tech industry can defend against attacks. There are defences against most known cyber attacks, which are being developed, and improved over time, he adds.

“Though it can be a bit of a back and forth, tit-for-tat competition between the malicious attackers and the defenders and operators at the hardware, software and networking levels, the situation seem to be dynamic, but contained,” he says.

But Lincoln believes social media remains a potent threat. “The social media and other services connected through the internet are still poorly defended, and it may take some research breakthroughs to discover how best to help defend people against fake news and related social-media attacks, where the people themselves are the point of attack,” he says.

Control and openness

There is growing concern that some sovereign states use the internet to control their citizens. This was demonstrated most recently during the disturbances that took place in Kashmir this summer. According to reports from the United Nations, the state-run telecoms and internet service provider is still blocking some internet access.

Lincoln believes state-sponsored internet services have provided internet connectivity to masses of people who would not otherwise have been connected for years or decades into the future. But some of the countries that have helped provide many people with connectivity have also censored access, says Lincoln. For instance, he says, governments have employed means to limit the connectivity of content that they find objectionable or dangerous, to the citizens, society, or country.

But for Lincoln, these controls can easily be taken too far, curbing freedom of speech and blocking opposing political views from being aired. “Such restrictions can provide some public benefits of maintaining established societal bounds, such as the restrictions on Nazi-related propaganda in Germany or exploitive imagery of children in the US, but they can be taken too far, restricting speech and assembly and communication with people around the world,” he says.

Read more about the history of the internet

Father of the internet and Google evangelist, Vint Cerf, speaks to Computer Weekly about tapping, privacy and IP addresses.

The web changed everything. Its success has as much to do with the simplicity of using an HTTP web browser, as the fact that it was open.

But Lincoln also argues that there is perhaps a need to put limits on free speech. “Is it OK to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre?” he says. “There need to be some limits on the uses of internet infrastructure and connected systems, when those uses pose dangers to society.”

Any discussion of control is not complete without references to openness. Just over 30 years after the first network packet was sent over Arpanet, while working at Cern, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the http protocol for sharing documents via the internet, laying the foundations for the worldwide web. In 1993, Cern donated the web protocols to the open source community, and the internet took off.

Lincoln believes the fact that the internet has had so much impact and was able to establish a set of principles quickly was largely down to the use of open interfaces. So, one could argue that its success going forward will not be inextricably linked to the dominance of major internet firms, but on the continued research and development of open interfaces.

Read more on Internet infrastructure

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