Can humans remain in control of computers?
by Jeff Hudson
Silicon-based life forms are soon set to outnumber the number of people on the planet, it is up to us to put measures into place now to ensure that things do not spiral out of control
Stories often tend to be perceived as more interesting than facts but what if reality is, in fact, catching up with fiction at a far greater speed than thought possible? With silicon-based life forms – advanced computer technology - soon set to outnumber the number of people on the planet, it is up to us to put measures into place now to ensure carbon and silicon can coexist safely in a changing world. In a certain sense, life has been following this well-worn plot for decades. We invented silicon-based helpers to crunch our numbers and increase our productivity, and they have bound us with soft shackles of convenience and a sense of connectedness. And, although, we cannot call it war - we are engaged in a battle for control over our helpers. Otherwise, they could suddenly stop working or worse, start working for someone else.
Our romance with silicone-based life forms started in 1947 with the transistor. It would have been difficult in the beginning to imagine this useful device as a life form but in some ways, that is what it became. In 65 short years, the humble transistor evolved into an artificial life form called Watson, a computer system that recognises natural language. And, in 2011, it handily defeated two former champions on the television quiz show Jeopardy. In contrast, it took carbon-based life forms - us - four billion years to evolve from the humble amoeba to a species capable of imagining and creating Watson. Silicon-based life forms now make short work of tasks that once took us many man hours to accomplish. In addition to carrying crushing computational loads without complaint, they deliver our communications at the speed of light, transact business on our behalf and help us perform tasks more efficiently. We think a lot about the way we interact with them. Few of us, however, think about how silicone-based life forms interact with one another.
Because we invented silicone-based life forms, it is not surprising that their 'social' interactions evolved much like our own. In the distant past, we developed ways to identify members of our own tribes - people we could trust with our secrets; we could not let just anyone know where we kept our food and spear points. As our social structures grew more complex, we developed more elaborate ways to identify members of our tribes such as manners of speech, clothing, body piercings, identification cards and so forth. Similarly, we taught our computers to recognise us by methods that have evolved from login credentials to biometric markers. After all, we cannot let just anyone know what is in our secret files. But as computer society has evolved, many machines have quietly declined to speak with us; preferring instead to communicate with like-minded life forms.
Like we do, computers keep secrets - important, valuable secrets - from human resource and customer data to intellectual property. To identify computers with which it is okay to share these secrets - the machines use internet provider addresses, secure sockets layer certificates, secure shell keys and encryption. Soon, machine-to-machine conversations will outnumber human-to-human and human-to-machine conversations many times over. Demographic experts estimate that by 2035, our planet will be home to a little more than eight billion humans. In this same year, IP addresses - with their representative silicon-powered machines that can communicate with one another and humans - will number approximately 65 billion. About 250,000 million digital certificates will secure conversations between these machines.
This is where life significantly diverges from the standard man-versus-machine plot. We and silicon-based life forms will almost certainly still be working and evolving together. In some cases, as with wireless pacemakers, we will actually be part of one another. We will serve silicone-based life forms and they will serve us. When trouble comes, we will most likely be the responsible parties, as we are today. These troubles will likely involve our inability or unwillingness to maintain machines' identities, as they are today. The certificates that machines use to identify themselves to one another in terms of authentication and to keep secrets by way of encryption are nearly as critical to humans as are the machines themselves. When certificates expire unexpectedly, vital health and financial information stops flowing, power grids go dark and business, and personal, transactions stop in their tracks. Brand damage invariably ensues. Our battle for control over the behavior of silicone-based life forms begins with the battle to control their identities.
If we do not vigilantly maintain strong identities, in the form of encryption key lengths, and safeguard certificates and keys. Through security best practices and proper management, these machines become vulnerable to identity theft - the consequence of which is arguably more devastating and far reaching than are the consequences of human identity theft. After all, a thief who pilfers the right computer's identity can steal millions of human identities and much more in a matter of minutes. Although many of us try to shirk our stewardship of machines' identities by throwing up the latest intrusion detection and prevention system or firewall. For example, the only way we can truly win the battle is this: we must effectively manage the certificates and keys that identify our silicone-based helpers and we must shift our thinking to include them as stakeholders in our management processes. To do this, we can draw on what we know about effective identity and access management processes for human stakeholders.
For example, we can think of weak key lengths - currently less than 2048 bits - as weak passwords. It is easy for attackers to guess them. Similarly, we can think of long key and certificate validity periods as long password-rotation periods. If passwords are out there forever, someone with malevolent intentions is bound to discover and use them. And expired certificates block legitimate machine-to-machine communications just as surely as expired domain names block legitimate user access; untracked SSH entitlements expose machines to breaches in the same way that untracked privileged-account access does. And recovering from certificate authority compromises is as difficult as recovering from major software vulnerabilities.
Far from being a George Orwell novel, this is a real world we are facing and have to evolve with today. The perspective has to change from an anthropocentric world with humans as actors in control, to a world where silicon can speak to silicon without any human involvement. Our applications and past constructs have to be adapted to reflect this shift and we have to make sure that if and when machines do talk to each other - and they will - they do so safely and securely. As the shepherds for both carbon and silicon - it is our responsibility to put into action an integrated framework, holistic approach, governance and management that will ensure we can evolve together into the future.
Jeff Hudson is chief executive at information technology firm Venafi
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