A recent New York Times article, “Killing the Computer to Save It,” profiles one of the United States’ leading computer security specialists, Dr. Peter G. Neumann.
Back in the fall of 1952, Neumann sat down to breakfast with the one and only Albert Einstein. What they discussed led Neumann to embrace a design philosophy based on Einstein’s aphorism, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Today, computer systems are so vulnerable to attacks because of their complexity. According to Neumann, complex systems break in complex ways. This has led to an epidemic of computer malware, scores of data breaches and thefts, and growing concern about cyber warfare—so much so that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned earlier this month of a possible “cyber-Pearl Harbor” attack on the United States.
Neumann believes the only way to ensure that systems are secure and trustworthy is to start over and redesign them from a clean slate. His current project, fittingly titled Clean Slate, is funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and isn’t necessarily about starting from scratch. Rather, it’s an effort to rethink computer design by studying the past half century’s worth of research, carefully selecting the best ideas, and building a new and complete solution from the bottom up. And one that’s simpler, more stable, and puts security first.
In the article, Neumann provides an interesting scientific analogy. He notes that biological systems have multiple immune systems. Not only are there the initial barriers, but the body has secondary systems (e.g., T cells) that detect and eliminate intruders as well as remember them in order to provide future protections. We need systems like that—not that the ones we have today, which were designed with security as an afterthought.
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