Cryptography pioneer says information security is possible'within a decade

Whitfield Diffie, one of the discoverers of public-key encryption in the 1970s, expects the distribution of computing processes across networks can produce a more secure computing environment.

"I'm bullish on communications and information security," Diffie said today during a keynote address at the Comnet conference in Washington.

Diffie is chief security officer for Sun Microsystems Inc., so he has an incentive to be bullish. But he said the IT industry has some advantages going for it in the 21st century that could make trusted computing a reality:

  • There is a much larger store of cryptographic expertise available in the public domain.

  • The cost of hardware is low enough that physically separating processes is economically feasible.

  • Code can be written with limited, verifiable functionality.

  • Diffie said the Sun slogan, "the network is the computer," is truer now than ever, and because of that the two major security challenges are configuration control and negotiation between network elements.

    The client-server model of computing, which is evolving into a Web services model, eventually will lead to utility computing, in which basic processes requested by one computer are farmed out to the most efficient, effective or most trusted provider, Diffie said.

    "This is going to succeed, big time," he said.

    Effectively partitioning processes would mean that no one system would have to be completely trusted as long as each element could be trusted for its portion of a job. Not surprisingly, the job of negotiating these transactions and determining the level of trust available will be done by hardware being developed by the Trusted Computing Group, of which Sun is a member.

    Inexpensive trusted hardware could provide a greater level of security than software-only models, Diffie said.

    Although this model of computing is coming, it will not be arriving right away, Diffie said. He expects secure utility computing to be the dominant form within about 10 years.

    About the Author

    William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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