As everyone should know by now, not quite two weeks ago the latest nugget from Edward Snowden via Glenn Greenwald and co-authors was revealed, and was that the NSA and its UK counterpart the GSHQ “have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails.” The measures used to accomplish this include covertly controlling the setting of encryption standards, more powerful brute force code-cracking, and inserting backdoors into commercial encryption software.
This is very bad, and has led more than one observer to declare that the internet as we know it is dead as a secure medium of communication. That of course leads to the question of what is to be done about it.
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To me the question arises here: How in practice is such a new internet going to come about? That is, who is going to set the protocols on such issues as ensuring that security certificates cannot be forged, who is going to build whatever hardware is needed, and where is all this going to happen?
With that question in mind, we can consider another vision, which is offered from the standpoint that the issue is what is actually going to happen naturally. Last Friday the Executive Chairman of Google Eric Schmidt spoke at a forum and suggested that what is going to happen as a result of the surveillance, or of the publicity about it, unfortunately in his view, is that in effect there will be several internets.
The real danger [from] the publicity about all of this is that other countries will begin to put very serious encryption – we use the term ‘balkanization’ in general – to essentially split the internet and that the internet’s going to be much more country specific. That would be a very bad thing, it would really break the way the internet works, and I think that’s what I worry about. There’s been spying for years, there’s been surveillance for years, and so forth, I’m not going to pass judgment on that, it’s the nature of our society.
If we focus on the prediction here rather than the apologetic attitude toward surveillance, we can see that it has some plausibility. As countries work toward better encryption to defeat US surveillance they will be more inclined to let their own citizens in on the finished product than those of other countries, thus leading to the Balkanization.
One new internet or several of them? That might well be the question. My suggestion is that if the second possibility is to be avoided, those who want the first and have the technical ability to implement it (probably residing in Western Europe) had best get started.