Who chooses the path that data takes?

The Internet in its current form is outdated, believes Adrian Perrig. He’s set on creating an Internet where society would regain more control.
The internet has changed our lives in positive ways, but it also has its risks. Scientists at ETH Zurich are developing SCION to ensures that confidential data, such as medical data, is delivered to the recipient securely. (Image: iStock)

We all need the Internet, every day. And now in the Covid-19 crisis more than ever. We’re working from home, sending e-mails and data, and holding video calls. And all the while we rely on vast amounts of sensitive data circulating reliably and securely over the net. Just how dependent we are on the Internet becomes clear when there’s an outage – and these happen more often than we’d like.

Outages are often caused by small errors in the network, and cause damage running into millions. But it’s not only outages that affect transmission; data may also be hijacked or diverted. This is particularly tricky when it comes to strictly confidential data, such as patient data. Imagine you’re at the doctor’s surgery, but instead of being alone with the doctor there are other people sitting in the room, noting down details on your health. You’d never tolerate such a situation – but this is just the type of thing that can happen on the Internet!

Outdated protocol

How do these network errors and malfunctions happen? And what can we do about them? To answer this, we need to understand how data and network packets travel through the Internet. In the Internet are signposts that guide the packets along the right path at every intersection. The protocol that labels these signposts is called the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). But it’s over 30 years old and during this time has hardly evolved at all. The protocol is vulnerable, and the massive expansion of the Internet has exposed many weaknesses. Hackers can mislabel the signposts and then intercept or eliminate data sent the wrong way.

Pre-labelled data packets

But these shortcomings don’t need to hold us in thrall. Scientists are currently investigating what a next-generation Internet could look like. My team and I are developing one such solution: it’s called SCION – which stands for Scalability, Control, and Isolation On Next-Generation Networks. SCION solves BGP weaknesses by replacing the protocol, and even making it obsolete. Instead of being controlled by BGP, data packets contain at the time of sending the exact path they should take through the Internet. As the packets are sent by “autopilot”, there’s no more need for signposts at intersections.

SCION ensures that confidential data, such as medical data, is delivered to the recipient securely. The network is trustworthy, and personal data is protected to the highest degree. Although there are one or two other solutions, as far as I can see they provide only symptomatic relief, or entail a loss of bandwidth or flexibility.

«The Internet is no longer a black box, but is being illuminated and so made transparent.»      Adrian Perrig

This “new” Internet got off the ground at ETH Zurich. The Network Security Group is continuously enhancing the system and incorporating elements to make the architecture even faster, more secure and more reliable. It’s already being used by a number of banks. As SCION could not be brought to market by a university, we founded the company Anapaya Systems, an ETH Zurich spin-off.

More transparency; more user choice

Our goal is to establish a secure infrastructure for digital communication. An infrastructure that differs from today’s Internet in that it gives control back to society and the economy. Institutions such as the health service should be able to decide for themselves which paths their packets and data take. This gives them the assurance that confidential data will remain confidential. The Internet is no longer a black box, but is being illuminated, and so made transparent. Users can now choose for themselves both the path and the speed with which data is transmitted. SCION is bringing us a decisive step closer to the vision of a supremely competent, reliable network infrastructure

Tower Talks

On 27 and 28 May 2020, Roche will continue the Tower Talk series hosted this year by ETH Zurich on the topic “Patient - Data – Security”. Two free 45-​minute lunchtime sessions will give you the opportunity to listen, learn, and engage in dialogue with data security experts and scientists – one of whom is Adrian Perrig. More information: https://www.roche.ch/standorte/basel-​hq/services/tower-​talks.htm