To thwart spies, IETF wants to 'strengthen the Internet'

At its meeting in Vancouver this week, the IETF has discussed what it could do to turn its plan to protect the web from government spying into action.

Last week, IETF chair Jari Arkko spoke at a UN event in Bali about the need for the engineers behind the Internet to push for new standards that would make it more difficult for government intelligence agencies like the NSA to spy on Internet users en masse. In his speech, Arkko suggested two main tenets to the plan extending SSL-like encryption to all pages of the Internet, and improving encryption algorithms. To encourage businesses and website operators to adopt these methods, Arkko suggested making them part of the HTTP 2.0 protocol, which is about a year away from submission as a proposed standard.

The IETF convened for its meeting earlier this week, sparking the longer conversation that is needed to put these and other plans into place. Arkko provided an update on the IETF blog in a post titled "Strengthening the internet," explaining that the discussion at the meeting this week largely revolves around improving privacy on the web.

One course of action for the IETF appears to be the promotion of more secure alternatives to the web tools that leave users vulnerable to monitoring today.

"The first meeting that we attended on Monday morning (APPSAWG) went through application after application, considering how those applications make use  of Transport Layer Security (TLS) and looking at possibilities to get the TLS-secured versions more widely and consistently deployed," Arkko wrote in the blog post, explaining that the discussion focused specifically on email, instant messaging and VoIP protocol, and what technological solutions could prevent pervasive monitoring over them.

Where encryption is concerned, Jarkko says the multipath TCP working group discussed "opportunistic encryption," an approach that facilitates encryption when a system establishes a connection over an unencrypted communications channel.

"As that work matures, we might be able to expect to improve both efficiency (being able to use multiple paths) and security/privacy (in order to tie those paths together) at once, which could be a compelling prospect," Arkko wrote.

The consensus at the meeting was that government surveillance enacted through the Internet is an attack that the IETF needs to defend against. Five questions were posed to the audience at the end of the show. The first two, which asked if the IETF is willing to respond to pervasive surveillance and whether the IETF needs to include surveillance as part of its threat model when developing standards, received strong support.

The implementation of encryption technologies seems to be a point of contention. Almost all attendees reportedly agreed that "the IETF should include encryption, even outside authentication, where practical." However, the crowd reportedly elicited a "mixed response," albeit with "more yes than no," when asked if "the IETF should strive for end-to-end encryption, even when there are middleboxes in the path."

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is