In Light Reading's original science fiction serial, "Silence Like Diamonds," encryption is broken, and security pros find lots of work.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

August 18, 2015

5 Min Read
Keeping Secrets Is Hard in the Year 2030

We're rocketing toward our conclusion of Light Reading's original science fiction serial, "Silence Like Diamonds." Read the latest installment here:

Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 8: Automatic Kidnapping.

Need to catch up? Start here: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business.

Or find every episode at the Faster-Than-Light Reading content page.

Once you're caught up, come back here and we'll return to the subject of encryption in the universe of "Silence Like Diamonds."

One of the most fascinating bits of business in "Silence Like Diamonds" is the way author John Barnes imagines the current state of encryption turned upside down.

I keep chewing over this point because it's so strange compared to the world we live in today, where we assume that any cheap computer encrypts information so strongly that the most powerful computers in the world can't break that encryption. (See What if Encryption Just Stopped Working?)

Barnes's imaginary world 15 years in the future turns that assumption upside down. In the world of "Silence Like Diamonds," encryption is like any other computational function: Anything one computer can do, another can undo. Businesses and individuals must assume nothing they encrypt is safe.

How different from today's world would that be? Surprisingly, maybe not a lot in most ways.

Right now, attackers can't break strong encryption, but they can get around it -- and do, frequently. They install spyware, they exploit security flaws in software, they use social engineering to trick information and passwords out of trusting users. Information channels are already quite leaky, even where encryption holds up.

And encryption doesn't always hold up. The Edward Snowden leaks showed that the US National Security Agency could decrypt some of the most common encryption algorithms in use -- including SSL, which secures transactions in all the common web browsers, as reported by Spiegel Online in December.

But still, there are some encryption formats that the NSA couldn't break, including those used in Zoho email, the Tor anonymization service, CSpace instant messaging and the ZRTP VoIP service, Spiegel says.

Strong, unbreakable encryption -- the kind we (often erroneously) take for granted -- is a relatively recent invention. The algorithms only date back 40 years. That's longer than the entire life of the Internet, of course, which is why we act like it's a law of nature. Previously, codebreakers were able to break encryption in hours or days, so much so that often people communicating with each other didn't bother encrypting even the most important state and business secrets, as Barnes writes on his personal blog.

The future of "Silence Like Diamonds" looks a lot like a high-tech version of the past, with codemakers, codebreakers, hackers and security professionals playing leapfrog -- and making a lot of money doing it. That's the work carried out by our heroine Yip and her family.

You can even encrypt information securely in the world of "Silence Like Diamonds." Even when encryption is easily broken almost all the time, one form of encryption codebreakers can't break uses "one-time pads" -- an encryption key the recipient and sender of the message know but attackers don't, and which is used once and then destroyed. That's what Yip tries to do when she sends up a balloon from her parents' home; she's trying to send a one-time pad over tight laser connections.

Also, large drones called Griffons circle above cities, providing wireless Internet access, while "pocket drones" called Roverinos provide individual access. Presumably those Roverino drones also provide one-time pads to users who need to communicate securely.

And that suggests roles for the communications service providers in Barnes's imaginary year 2013. In the future of "Silence Like Diamonds," service providers deliver broadband by drone, and provide security services, including managing those one-time pads.

The one thing I can't see being done -- and this is a very important thing -- is real-time, secure, anytime communications. How does an Amazon let people spontaneously log in and buy merchandise when it requires setting up a one-time pad with drones or balloons for every transaction?

Here in the real world of 2015, forward-thinking service providers, embracing the ethos of the New IP, are allowing enterprise customers to configure bandwidth, VPNs and spin up firewalls and other services on demand. How can service providers -- and other B2B companies that deal in expensive services and merchandise -- retain that kind of agility in the world of "Silence Like Diamonds," when secure communications is difficult and requires planning?

That's all for today. Things are getting exciting for Yip and Markus as we approach the last two episodes of "Silence Like Diamonds." Have a good week and we'll see you Friday for the last episode before the finale!

Related posts:

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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