DNS pioneer Paul Vixie on the evolution of the internet

31 Jan 2019

Dr Paul Vixie. Image: Farsight Security

Dr Paul Vixie was a major contributor to the creation of the internet as we know it and wants to ensure it is a fairer, safer place.

An Internet Hall of Fame inductee and key innovator in the development of several Domain Name System (DNS) protocol extensions and apps used throughout the internet today, Dr Paul Vixie has seen the development of the internet from the ground up.

Now CEO of California-based firm Farsight Security, Vixie spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about everything from social media giants to nation state attacks.

Time to re-examine our relationship with our data

Looking at the recent fine issued by CNIL against Google regarding alleged GDPR violations, Vixie says it is high time for major tech firms to reconsider how they conduct business. “It is important … so that the whole façade can come crumbling down and so that these companies can see that they can’t continue to grow in the same manner that they have been.”

Decrying the current internet ecosystem as a “giant surveillance culture”, Vixie added: “As a citizen of the world, I would like to be able to leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs behind me and not have targeted ads – or worse, [for that to] be my thanks for it.”

He noted that the origins of the internet were far more benign compared to how it can be leveraged for ill these days. He made the point that it was “originally designed for a bunch of scientists who trusted each other” and was not initially created to be used by millions of people around the world.

Looking at the modern internet, Vixie views IoT devices as a major area of suspicion as security is often low on the priority list of many vendors. “[It’s] a race to the bottom in terms of getting as much market share as you can, as soon as you can.”

On data collection by companies, platforms and devices, Vixie expressed surprise at the ease with which users accept certain agreements as a new normal. “It’s kind of thing I would have expected humanity to make a conscious choice about rather than just slipping into it because it was profitable.”

As the internet has evolved, the “abuse of the system” and growth of cybercrime have given Vixie pause for thought. “The internet turned out to exploit all kinds of flaws in the way we run the economy.”

Mitigating cyber risk

Now spending his time mitigating cybercrime at Farsight Security, Vixie is a strong proponent of sharing knowledge when it comes to enterprises that unfortunately fall victim to attack.

While criminals these days are “heavily resourced to find new ways that will work using a different technique”, disclosure still could save another business from your fate. Although organisations may feel embarrassed to reveal details of a cyberattack, it is better for everyone to own up.

On a larger scale, nation state attacks are becoming a growing worry, and not just for governments either. “The thing that makes nation state attacks a special worry is their scale,” Vixie noted, adding that state-sponsored actors are not required to make money from every attack. Nation state groups with the resources of an entire country behind them “can tolerate a lot of setbacks”.

Prior to the Sony hack, Vixie said the prevailing narrative around nation state attacks was that investing in apprehending them was futile and companies should invest in things “they have a hope in stopping”. Since that pivotal incident, the rule now is: “Do what you can.”

The definition of a ‘nation’ is also outdated when it comes to digital warfare and actions carried out online. “Unfortunately, that entire model of what is a nation was crafted in a day when kinetic weapons were the only thing to worry about.” This was expanded further to include airspace, but threats have evolved considerably since then.

While it may be difficult to stop an attack from a country as large as China or Russia, there are ways to mitigate against certain attacks. Vixie noted that the Sony breach was “no different than the kind of things that we see with credit card breaches”.

Concluding the discussion, Vixie urged for people to take control in shaping an internet that is safer and more true to the original community-based mission a couple of decades ago. “We must not let it just be the big tech companies that decide humanity’s future. There are enough people with good intentions out there.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects