The Internet’s founders saw its promise – Washington Post

There also was an explicitly military component. Cerf had a “personal goal,” he said years later, of proving the viability of Baran’s vision of a communication system resilient enough to help the nation recover from a nuclear attack. That idea fueled a series of exercises in which digital radios made TCP/IP connections in increasingly complex scenarios.

The most ambitious tests sought to mimic “Operation Looking Glass,” a Cold War campaign to make sure that at least one airborne command center was aloft at all times, beyond the reach of possible nuclear destruction below. This involved a nearly continuous cycle of takeoffs and landings, from Strategic Air Command near Omaha, in precise shifts over the course of 29 years.

One day in the early 1980s, two Air Force tankers flew above the Midwestern plains as a specially outfitted van, carrying its own ground-based mobile command center, drove on highways below, said people involved in the exercise. Digital radios transmitting TCP/IP messages linked the air- and ground-based computers together into a temporary “net” that stretched for hundreds of miles and also included Strategic Air Command’s underground bunker.

To demonstrate the ability to maintain communications, the command centers transmitted among themselves a mock file representing the nation’s surviving military assets — necessary to direct a nuclear counterattack. The process typically took hours over the voice radios that were the standard technology of the time, said Michael S. Frankel, who oversaw the exercises for contractor SRI International and later became a top Pentagon official.

Over the TCP/IP connections, the same process took less than a minute, demonstrating how the protocols could allow computers to share information quickly and easily, potentially knitting together even a network that had been fractured by war.

A network is born

On Jan. 1, 1983, years of work by Cerf, Kahn and countless others culminated on what they dubbed “Flag Day,” a term that refers to the reboot of a system so total that it’s difficult to go back. Every computer on the ARPANET and other networks that wanted to communicate with it had to start using TCP/IP. And gradually they did, linking disparate networks together in a new, global whole.

So was born the Internet.

There were, of course, still practical barriers to entry given the expense of computers and the lines for transmitting data. Most people online in the 1970s and ’80s were affiliated with universities, government agencies or unusually tech-savvy companies. But those barriers shrank away, gradually creating a community that was bigger than any nation yet all but ungoverned.

The U.S. military would create its own networks using TCP/IP and eventually implement encryption to protect the security of its communications. But the civilian Internet would take decades to get widespread deployment of this basic security technology — a process that remains incomplete even today despite a surge of deployment in 2013, in the aftermath of revelations about the extent of NSA spying on the Internet.

Encryption would not have prevented all of today’s problems, many of which stem from the fundamentally open nature of the Internet and the astronomical value of the information and systems now connected to it. But it would have limited eavesdropping and made it easier for the recipient of messages to verify their source — two long-standing issues that remain unresolved.

Cerf said he still wishes that he and Kahn had been able to build encryption into TCP/IP from the beginning. “We would have had much more regular end-to-end encryption in the Internet” today, he said. “I can easily imagine this alternative universe.”

Debate remains, however, about whether widespread use of encryption was feasible in the early days of the Internet. The heavy computing demands, some experts say, could have made TCP/IP too difficult to implement, leading to some other protocol — and some network other than the Internet — becoming dominant.

“I don’t think the Internet would have succeeded as it did if they had the [encryption] requirements from the beginning,” Johns Hopkins cryptologist Matthew Green said. “I think they made the right call.”


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