IETF Takes on Challenge of Internet Monitoring

At IETF 88, we held a plenary discussion of how we could harden the Internet against ongoing monitoring and survalence. There were no significant surprises in what people said about monitoring. So, we had an opportunity to focus on what the IETF as a standards organization responsible for technical standards that drive the Internet can do about this problem. I think we made amazing progress.

The IETF works by consensus. We discuss issues, and see if there’s some position that can gain a rough consensus of the participants in the discussion. After a couple of hours of discussion, Russ Housley asked several consensus questions. The sense of the room is that we should treat these incidents of monitoring as an attack and include them in the threats we try and counter with security features in our protocols. The room believes that encryption, even without authentication has value in fighting these attacks. There was support for the idea of end-to-end encryption is valuable even when there are middle boxes. IETF decisions made in meetings are confirmed on public mailing lists, so the sense of the room is not final. Also, note that I did not capture the exact wording of the questions that were posed.

This is huge. There is very strong organizational agreement that we’re going to take work in this space as seriously. Now that we’ve decided pervasive monitoring is an attack, anyone can ask how a proposed protocol (or change to a protocol) counters that attack. If it doesn’t handle the attack and there is a way to address the attack, then we will be in a stronger position arguing the threat could be addressed. In addition, the commitment to encryption providing value without authentication will be useful in providing privacy and minimizing fingerprinting by passive attackers.

The IETF is only one part of the solution. We can work on the standards that describe how systems interact. However, implementations, policy makers, operators and users will also play a role in securing the Internet against pervasive attacks.

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