How the Internet’s Founders Feel About The NSA Scandal

As the co-fathers of the Internet, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn tend to be pretty protective of their digital masterpiece. Both were early Defense Department engineers of the communications architecture that underlies the modern Internet, and both tend be outspoken about threats to a free and open information superhighway. For instance, when a United Nations body, the Internet Telecommunications Union, tried to assert more control over Internet governance, Cerf was immediately dispatched to Washington D.C. to preempt the power grab.

The National Security spying scandal has, likewise, been hailed as a global threat to privacy and the Internet itself. In a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, Cerf and Kahn had a more reserved concern for government surveillance.

Here is Cerf on the NSA:

Q. Edward Snowden’s actions have raised a new storm of controversy about the role of the Internet. Is it a significant new challenge to an open and global Internet?
A. The answer is no, I don’t think so. There are some similar analogues in history. The French historically copied every telex or every telegram that you sent, and they shared it with businesses in order to remain competitive. And when that finally became apparent, it didn’t shut down the telegraph system.

The Snowden revelations will increase interest in end-to-end cryptography for encrypting information both in transit and at rest. For many of us, including me, who believe that is an important capacity to have, this little crisis may be the trigger that induces people to spend time and energy learning how to use it.

To give a bit of background, Cerf has suggested that privacy is a relatively new concept (and, historically, he’s correct). During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln collected all telegrams, in a move that has been compared to the modern surveillance state. It appears that this type of mass surveillance, followed by new privacy laws, is typical in American history.

Khan seemed far more reserved in opining how the NSA affects privacy:

Q: Is there a solution to challenges of privacy and security?
In the 1990s when I was on the National Internet Infrastructure Advisory Committee, Al Gore showed up as vice president, and he made an impassioned pitch for Clipper chip [an early government surveillance system]. He said, “We need to be very aware of the needs of national security and law enforcement.” Even though the private sector was arguing for tight encryption, the federal government needed [to be able to conduct surveillance]. It never went, and it’s not anywhere today. I think it’s probably easier to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem than it is to solve this.

A bit of background, in the 90’s, the government proposed a hardware backdoor to cell phones, known as the “Clipper Chip”. Hackers and activists successfully fought its implementation. Privacy is a perennial problem on the Internet–one that may never be solved.

Read the full interview here.