But can we keep the Internet secure?

Vint Cerf

The year is 1982. The Internet has not yet been released to the research, development and academic communities. It has been nearly 10 years since the first definitions of TCP/IP and 13 years since the Internet's predecessor, Arpanet, began its deployment in late 1969.

Government IT revolved around mainframes, some remote but mostly local terminals, some interactive but mostly batch processing. If there was any networking, it was proprietary for the most part, although there were X.25-based networks emerging, for example, in the Defense Department.

Fast forward to 2002. The Internet has on the order of 600 million users and is available in some measure in most countries of the world. The U.S. government is using Internet-based and generally networked systems to provide online access to services. And the practice is spreading to state and local governments.

Customers of the private sector expect 24-hour service, something that has spilled over into citizens expecting the same responsiveness from all levels of government.

Workflow engines modeling business processes and other tools make it possible to initiate a transaction on the Web, process an intermediate confirmation with a two-way pager or short message system, and finish it using an e-mail message. It is possible to immerse the transactional processes of government into our most popular communications services.

More vulnerability

At the physical level, these services are becoming accessible wirelessly and invite a kind of anywhere, anytime work practice.

To this rather optimistic view, one cannot avoid observing that the positive potential of IT has another side: vulnerability. We are becoming increasingly dependent on extremely complex network- and software-driven platforms. Deliberate attacks against networked resources are recorded daily and in large numbers. The terrorist experiences of 2001 represent a kind of watershed in government and private-sector thinking about the vulnerabilities of our IT systems and services.

Substantial challenges lie ahead. Software is complex, and bugs are common. The ability to exploit weaknesses is increasingly widespread. The next two decades will be more demanding than the last two in terms of application development, robustness, resilience and security. But it will be worth the effort as we create an increasingly useful digital environment in which to work and play.

Vint Cerf is a senior vice president at WorldCom Inc. and is one of the original developers of the Internet.

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