Securing the Internet: Larry Peterson -- Blue sky thinking
Patrolling the edges, rethinking the core, Princeton researchers envision a more secure Internet
Larry Peterson is chairman of the computer science department and a force behind the Global Environment for Network Innovation, aka GENI, a National Science Foundation-backed effort to build a test-bed Internet—one that parallels the actual Internet but which researchers can use to run all sorts of experiments.
“The research community has lots of potential solutions to our vast array of security problems, but currently we have no way to investigate and validate those solutions,” Peterson said. “GENI will enable us to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
GENI is often referred to as a “clean-slate” attempt to redesign the Internet from the ground up. Peterson said that while GENI may indeed lead to a wholesale reshaping of the Internet, it might also lead to more incremental changes.
“It is an extreme position to believe that we are going to replace the entire Internet,” he said. On the other hand, Peterson noted, the Internet itself is a model for its own reinvention. “Thirty years ago the Internet was the crazy clean-slate idea on the block and telecommunications was the entrenched system,” he said.
Peterson likes to say that this is computer science’s opportunity to do fundamental research in a way that has never before been possible. The GENI testing ground is to computer scientists what a particle accelerator is to physicists or a space telescope is to astrophysicists.
“This is our moon shot,” Peterson told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007. “It’s the computer field’s version of the International Space Station. It’s our chance to do big science.”
Most important, as Peterson sees it, GENI would give the research community a chance to profoundly influence the future of the Internet. He points out that if the Internet continues on its current trajectory, industry will dominate all important decisions about its future. “If industry continues to chart the course of the Internet we won’t ever be able to have a national debate on privacy and security,” said Peterson.
Peterson argues that a blue-sky project like GENI is essential because we can’t do deeply innovative research on the Internet; experimentation would jeopardize the stability on which existing commerce and other business depend.
Thus, he argues, researchers need a separate test bed where they can safely try wild new ideas.
So far the Internet has proved to be exceedingly innovative “at the edges”—for example, giving the raw material for an inventive 19-year-old to bring the billion-dollar music industry to its knees with the invention of Napster. Peterson sees GENI as the means to train innovative thinking on—instead of peripheral applications—the technological core of the Internet.
GENI will allow researchers to experiment with new approaches to specific aspects of the Internet; it also will allow them to play with new technologies that may ultimately supplant the network of networks that currently serves as the Internet’s nervous system with something we can scarcely yet imagine—say, an entirely wireless infrastructure or one that operates chiefly on optics.
Above all, Peterson—like his GENI compatriot Jennifer Rexford—firmly believes that the best way to address security is through the network. “We can’t wait for all personal computers to become more secure,” he said. “The network needs to be able to quarantine compromised machines so that we can limit their collateral damage.”