Kaminsky Warns Black Hat Audience of Risks to the Internet

During his Black Hat keynote, Dan Kaminsky outlines a litany of risks to the continued functioning of the modern internet and identifies the keys for moving it forward.

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Dan Kaminsky

LAS VEGAS—In a rambling, hourlong keynote address at the Black Hat USA conference here today, security luminary Dan Kaminsky detailed the risks and the opportunities inherent in the internet.

Kaminsky first shot to fame in 2008, when he revealed a flaw at that year's Black Hat USA event in the pervasive Domain Name System (DNS) protocol. At the time, he said that a web doomsday had been averted and the continued safe operation of the internet could continue. Now in 2016, with threats of government surveillance and an ongoing public debate about the use of encryption, Kaminsky once again sees the basic fabric of the internet to be at risk.

"We have work to do to keep the internet working," he said. "I'm here to encourage everyone to notice what is wrong, how it can get worse and what we can do about it."

Kaminsky said that it's possible that the internet as we know it today could be lost if bad policies are enabled that restrict the promise of an open internet. He recounted that AOL in the United States and Minitel in France were two predecessor internet-like networks that were successful for a while but failed when the internet we have today emerged. The reason why those other networks failed in Kaminsky's view is because they had central authorities and were not fully open and distributed to global innovation in the way that the modern internet is today.

Fears over security could lead to a more closed internet, and that's not a good thing. Kaminsky said that with the internet of things (IoT), people are assuming it to be insecure right out of the gate. He added that while that might be true, assuming such a new technology is insecure so soon is vastly different from the smartphone experience. Smartphones, which have been around for a decade, weren't assumed to be insecure at the outset.

"I worry about the ability of developers to innovate without being smothered by security concerns," Kaminsky said.

Defense Minus Offense Equals Compliance

Kaminsky said that while he knows full well that many attendees of the Black Hat conference just like breaking things, he's OK with that because he's the same way. That said, Kaminsky quipped that defense minus offense is just compliance.

The challenges of building secure applications are not trivial, and generally speaking there isn't the software equivalent of a "building code" that mandates that all code that is written properly and everyone adheres to secure coding practices.

The modern internet is in Kaminsky's view what users want it to be. If, for example, a browser implements filters to restrict access, users will use different browsers and find ways to get what they want.

When it comes to encryption, Kaminsky didn't mince his words.

"You have two choices—either use an encrypted channel and that's how you have secure access, or everything is in your own building and literally it's the computer equivalent of putting the dollar bills in your mattress," he said.

In terms of security in the cloud, Kaminsky said that he loves Docker containers and the isolation they can provide to enable security. He's also a big fan of the cloud model in general, and when properly implemented he sees it as a way to limit risks by benefiting from integrated security.

In the final analysis though, Kaminsky really just wants security people to share best practices for security more widely. He also advocates for the use of environments and coding frameworks that make it easier for developers to implement security without compromising usability.

"If we want to make security better, give people environments that are easy to work with and still secure," Kaminsky said. "We have an internet to hold on to. We have to figure out what people want to do and help them to do it safely."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.