Our Aging Internet Protocols

HeartbleedThe Internet has changed massively over the last decade. We now see it doing amazing things compared to what it was first designed to do, which was to provide communications within the government and between universities. But the underlying protocols that are still the core of the Internet were designed in an on-line world of emails and bulletin boards.

Those base protocols are always under attack from hackers because the protocols were never designed with safety in mind or designed for the kind of uses we see today on the Internet. The original founders of the Internet never foresaw that people with malicious intent would ever attack the underlying protocols and wreak havoc. In fact, they never expected it to grow much outside their cosy little world.

There is one group now looking at these base protocols. The Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII) was launched in April of 2014 after the Heartbleed virus wreaked havoc across the Internet by attacking OpenSSL. There are huge corporations behind this initiative, but unfortunately not yet huge dollars. But companies like Amazon, Adobe, Cisco, Dell, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft and about every other big name in computing and networking is a member of the group. The group currently is funding proposals from groups who want to research ways to upgrade and protect the core protocols underlying the Internet. There is not yet a specific agenda or plan to fix all of the protocols, but rather some ad hoc projects. But the hope is that somebody will step up to overhaul these old protocols over time to create a more modern and safer web.

The genesis of the CII is to be able to marshall major resources after the next Heartbleed-like attack. It took the industry too long to fix Heartbleed and the concept is that if all of the members of the organization mobilize, then major web disruptions can be diagnosed and fixed quickly.

Following are some of the base protocols that have been around since the genesis of the Internet. At times each of these has been the target of hackers and malicious software.

IPv4 to IPv6. I just wrote last week about the depletion of IPv4 IP addresses. At some future point in time the industry will throw the switch and kill IPv4 and there is major concern that hackers have already written malicious code to pounce on networks that first day they are solely using IPv6. Hackers have had years to think about how to exploit the change while companies have instead been busy figuring out how to get through the conversion.

BGP: Border Gateway Protocol. BGP is used to coordinate changes in Internet topology and routing. The problem with the protocol is that it’s easily spoofed because nobody can verify if a specific web address belongs to a specific network. Fixing BGP is a current priority at the Core Infrastructure Initiative.

DNS: Domain Name System. This is the system that translates IP addresses into domain names. DNS is often the target of hacking and is how the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the New York Times. There are serious flaws in the DNS protocol that have been hastily patched but not fixed.

NTP: Network Time Protocol. NTP’s function is to keep clocks in sync between computer networks. In the past, flaws in the system have been used to launch denial-of-service attacks. It appears that this has been fixed for now, but the protocol was not designed for safety and could be exploited again.

SMTP: Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. SMTP is a protocol used to transfer emails between users. The protocol has no inherent safety features and was an early target of hackers. Various add-ons are now used to patch the protocol, but any server not using these patches (and many don’t) can put other networks at risk. Probably the only way to fix this is to find an alternative to email.

SSL: Secure Sockets Layer. SSL was designed to provide encryption protection for application layer connections like HTTP. Interestingly the protocol has had a replacement in place since 1997 – Transfer Layer Security. But SSL is still included in most networks to provide backward compatibility and 0.3% of web traffic still uses it. SSL was exploited in the infamous POODLE attack and the easiest way to make this secure would be to finally shut it down.


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