There is a growing belief among engineers and security experts that Internet security and privacy have become so maddeningly elusive that the only way to fix the problem is to start over.
What a new Internet might look like is still widely debated, but one alternative would, in effect, create a “gated community” where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety.
Today that is already the case for many corporate and government Internet users. As a new and more secure network becomes widely adopted, the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there.
“Unless we’re willing to rethink today’s Internet,” says Nick McKeown, a Stanford engineer involved in building a new Internet, “we’re just waiting for a series of public catastrophes.”
Last year, when a malicious software program thought to have been unleashed by a criminal gang in Eastern Europe suddenly appeared after easily sidestepping the world’s best cyberdefenses. Known as Conficker, it quickly infected more than 12 million computers, ravaging everything from the computer system at a surgical ward in England to the computer networks of the French military.
Conficker remains a ticking time bomb. It now has the power to lash together those infected computers into a vast supercomputer called a botnet that can be controlled clandestinely by its creators. What comes next remains a puzzle. Conficker could be used as the world’s most powerful spam engine, perhaps to distribute software programs to trick computer users into purchasing fake antivirus protection. Or much worse. It might also be used to shut off entire sections of the Internet. But whatever happens, Conficker has demonstrated that the Internet remains highly vulnerable to a concerted attack.