Happy Birthday, IETF

ietflogotransThere’s a small group that hosts meetings three times per year, and works mostly via email that you’ve probably not heard of.  They’re called the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF.  The women and men who participate in the IETF create standards by which computers communicate with one another.  You’re reading this note thanks to several of those standards.  They are collected in documents known as Requests for Comments or RFCs that are available for anyone to read.  In fact, you can write your own if you want.

The IETF became important to me at a time when we were just learning how to manage congestion (more demand than there is bandwidth).  It stayed important when we needed more efficient routing protocols.  Through internationalization efforts at the IETF, the Internet grew from a U.S. government network to a worldwide network of networks that supports people speaking just about any language.

Last week marked the IETF’s 30th birthday.  To the thousands of people who have participated over those thirty years, especially to those who aren’t with us today, I want to say this: Thank you.  Thank you to those who have worked to make TCP/IP-based networking suitable for the way we live, work, and play. Thanks to the people who have done their level best to see that our protocols are safe and secure.  Thanks to those who shared their innovations, so that the best ideas are available for all to use.  Thanks to those who devoted their lives to handling all the administrative aspects of the organization.

So now you know who the IETF is.  You too can participate, as can anyone.  For more information, just go to www.ietf.org and join the party and celebrate with us this anniversary, and the ones in the future.

Mark Crispin: 1956 – 2012

Mark CrispinMark Crispin passed away on the 28th of December. While I didn’t know him well, Mark was a very important visionary in the area of Internet applications, and Email and character sets in particular.

I first enjoyed his work as a user of the MM program on TOPS-20, upon which he based the design of IMAP. MM featured strong searching and marking capabilities, as well as all the customization a person could want. It was through MM that people individualized their messages with funny headers or a cute name. And it was all so easy to use. Mark was constantly reminding us about that, and how UNIX’s interface could always stand improvement. Mark was an unabashed TOPS-20 fan.

Before the world had fully converged on vt100 semantics, Mark worked to standardize SUPDUP and the SUPDUP option. He was also early to recognize the limitations of a single host table. Mark’s sense of humor brought us RFC-748, the Telnet randomly-lose option, which was the first April 1 RFC. He also wrote another such RFC for UTF-9 and UTF-10.

Most of us benefit from Mark’s work today through our use of IMAP, which followed Einstein’s advice by having a protocol that was as simple as possible to tackle the necessary problems, but no simpler. We know this because our first attempt was POP, which was too simple. Mark knew he had hit the balance right because he made benefited from his experience with lots of running code and direct work with many end users.

I will miss his quirkiness, his cowboy boots, and his recommendations for the best Japanese food in a town where the IETF would visit, and I will miss the contributions he should have had more time to make.

WCIT and the ITU?

Flag of ITU.svg

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is making the news these days, in part because there is about to be a treaty conference called the World Conferences on International Tariffs (WCIT).  What is the ITU? and what do they do?

The ITU is a specialized agency of the United Nations that focuses on telecommunications.  It has four components:

  • A general secretariat;
  • A standardization sector or ITU-T;
  • A radio coordination sector or ITU-R; and
  • A development sector or ITU-D;

The radio sector coordinates spectrum allocation and so-called “orbital satellite slots”.  It also is responsible for standardization of time.  The development sector focuses on the special needs of developing countries.  The standardization sector has over 150 years set international standards for telecommunications, starting with the telegraph.  The general secretariat manages logistics of the three sectors, and represents the ITU to other international fora, and to the U.N.

How has the ITU been relevant to you?  There are several key standards that are worth taking note of:

  • E.164 specifies pretty much what a telephone number looks like, starting with the international dialing code.
  • G.711, G.719 and others specify how voice is encoded into data.
  • X.509 is the basis for the public key infrastructure that is in use on the World Wide Web.
  • D.50 specifies accounting standards by which international carriers bill each other, or so-called settlement rates.  There’s real money involved in this one.

This is some pretty important stuff.

The ITU-T was formed out of the CCITT, which was a coordination committee, primarily made of European governments.  These days, its membership spans 193 countries. Only governments may vote, although civil society and paying sector members may have some influence.

So what is WCIT?  WCIT is a treaty-level conference in which all those lovely accounting rates are agreed upon.  But they’re not stopping there.  The ITU-T has had a very limited role in the Internet’s development.  Standardization and governance over the Internet falls to several classes of entities:

  • National governments with their own sets of laws;
  • Standards organizations such as the IEEE, IETF, W3C, and 3GPP; and
  • Not-for-profit organizations such as ICANN and Internet Registries.

This latter group focuses on what I call “internals”.  That is- how do you get an IP address or a domain name?  The Internet has grown over 1.25 billion users with very limited involvement of the ITU-T.

Now governments want to take a firmer hand in areas such as how addresses and names are allocated and cybersecurity.  That is what WCIT is about.

More about the ITU and WCIT in the future.

Web (in)Security and What Can Be Done

We all like to think that web security is perfect, but we all know better.  You know about spam, phishing, and all manner of malware.  You probably run a virus scanner on your computer.  But what you don’t expect and shouldn’t expect is that the core of our security system would have a flaw.  It does, and has, from the beginning.  What’s more, it’s a known flaw.

How is it your browser decides to trust a site, or to show that lovely lock icon and perhaps a green URL bar when your communication is both encrypted and verified to be to a specific end point?  The simple answer is that your browser provider, Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, or Google, has made a decision on your behalf that – at least as initially configured – your browser will trust a certain set of authorities– certificate authorities (CAs)– who will validate others.

One such certificate authority got hacked.  Badly.  And because they were trusted by your browser, so might you have been.  Here’s how it works.

  • When you access a URL that begins with “https”, a certificate is sent by that site that is signed by one of the trusted CAs, saying “yes, I agree that this is google.com,” (for example).  If someone gets in between you and Google, they won’t have the private key associated with that certificate, and they won’t be able to validate to your browser.
  • If someone breaks into a CA and gets a certificate for “google.com” (again, for example), and then gets between you and the real Google, they will be able to masquerade.  It doesn’t matter which CA it is, as long as your browser trusts it.  Google needn’t have any relationship with that CA.

This is what happened with DigiNotar.  Not only did they get hacked, but they didn’t notice.  They didn’t have sufficient controls in place to even spot the attack.  That they should have had.

But now there’s something else we can do.  In the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a few folks led by a gentleman by the name of Paul Hoffman have developed an approach where sites like Google can effectively register which certificates are valid for them in an separate alternative authority that we largely trust, the Domain Name System (DNS).  You use DNS to convert site names like ofcourseimright.com to IP addresses like

The group working on it is called “dane“.  Had the dane mechanism been in place in the browser, the attack on Diginotar and Google would have failed, even if Google was a customer of Diginotar (which they weren’t).

When we speak of security we always discuss defense in depth.  That is– never rely on exactly one mechanism to protect you, because at some point it will surely break.  In this case, the attacker needed to (a) compromise the CA and (b) get in between the service and the end user to succeed.  Had dane been in place, atop (a) and (b), the attacker would also have to have compromised Google’s DNS for the attack to succeed.  That’s likely even harder than compromising a CA.

Dane has another potential benefit: in the long run, it may get browsers completely out of the business of telling you who to trust, or it will extremely limit that trust.

This attack also demonstrates that as threats evolve our response to those threats evolves.  Here we understood the threat, but just didn’t get the work done fast enough before a CA was compromised.  I still call this a win, as I think we can expect to see dane even faster than we expected before the attack.

A New Role For Eliot

As many of you know I have a long history within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), having been involved since 1989.  The IETF is responsible for many of the underlying protocols that computers use to talk with one another for purposes such as Email and the Web.  I have served as the chair of two working groups, a research group, and have written numerous drafts and requests for comments.

As of late I have been involved with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).   The ITU is a U.N. organization whose origins date back to at least 1869, long prior to forming of the U.N. The ITU has developed numerous data communication standards, including X.509, which is what web encryption uses, as well as many of the codecs that are used on the network to transmit voice and video.

Last May I was able to join the United States delegation to the World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) in Hyderabad India.  Now I have been asked to serve as the Internet Architecture Board liaison to the ITU-T.  My role will be first and foremost to see that liaisons (messages between the organizations) are properly handled by the IAB and IETF.  I will advise the IAB and IETF on how the ITU-T functions, and the context around particular liaison statements.  Occasionally I will assist in drafting liaison statements.

These organizations operate quite differently.  The IETF is driven by individual participation, where people needn’t even attend meetings to participate in decisions.  The ITU-T is an intergovernmental organization in which only governments may make decisions, although others may advise.

This is an important role at an important time, because when these two organizations do not cooperate at some level, they end up duplicating and competing with each other’s work.  That can lead to more expensive products or products that do not work well together.