Meet The IETF's New Chair, Alissa Cooper

Remember the story about three little pigs, their questionable choice in building materials, and the big bad wolf that blows down two of their houses? Well, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the one that makes sure the internet isn't made from the technical equivalent of straw and wood. As of next week, the IETF will have a new leader: Alissa Cooper, a Fellow at Cisco who's worked with the IETF in various capacities since 2008.

Cooper got her start at the IETF while working at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) policy organization in Washington, D.C. At CDT, she focused on privacy, free speech, and how technical standards could help support those ideals. Those interests continued at the IETF and Cisco, where she helped the company protect its customers' privacy as it transitioned from on-premise to cloud-based services, and she'll keep pursuing them as the IETF chair.

"What’s interesting about the IETF is that the essence of what we do is build the building blocks that then get incorporated into network designs, corporate products, and larger software systems that get used on the internet," she said in an interview with Tom's Hardware. "So some of the design choices that get made when you’re designing those protocols can have a fundamental impact on privacy.” 

She told us that one of her favorite examples is the possibility of designing a standard with a stable identification that follows you around the internet. Anybody who uses that standard, Cooper said, would be effectively building a permanent identifier into their products. This would make it easier for companies--they'd always know if you visited their site before, what you've done on other sites, and the like--but would also be a privacy disaster.

"For me, it was always an interesting challenge to think through what those considerations are in IETF standards," she said, "Because while they are these fundamental building blocks, you don’t always know how they’re going to be used.” That's not to say that IETF has any say in what people build on top of these standards; many sites use cookies and other identifiers to create something pretty close to the system Cooper described in her example above.

The difference is that someone has to build those things on top of standards that, at least in theory, were designed to protect internet users. It's kind of like IETF making sure a house's foundation is made of brick; it's not the organization's fault if someone decides to build the rest of the house from straw.

Cooper told us that IETF will continue to focus on privacy and security under her stewardship. The organization will also have a particular focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) and how that can be secured. You might be familiar with some of the IoT's security failings--we've covered massive attacks on popular websites, vulnerabilities in connected devices, and some of the industry's attempts to secure the IoT before even more damage can be done.

Cooper will also focus on the administrative side of things. "This is not really the sexiest topic," she said, but the IETF's administrative structure was set up 10 years ago. She wants to look at how the organization can get new people involved and how it can work more closely with the open source style of development and with the people in charge of deploying tech based on its standards through every step of its process.

"I think the nature of what goes on at the IETF and how remarkable it is is kind of underappreciated," she said. "If you think about the internet, it is embedded into basically every aspect of modern life at this point. It’s this huge, distributed system that we all rely on so significantly. At every moment of the day now, if you have a smartphone or a reasonable broadband connection. You're using the internet for everything right now."

Still, for all its influence, Cooper said that the organization hasn't really felt the need to toot its own horn. Other companies are the ones deploying tech based on its standards, introducing new services, and the like, so the IETF has largely focused more on developing new standards than drumming up PR for the ones other people are deploying. That won't change too much under Cooper, but she said she will try to make people appreciate the IETF more.

“I personally think there’s more we could do to emphasize the fact that this thing you use or that people rely on wouldn’t exist if this community of volunteers hadn’t come together to work on it,” she said. You like having a house that some big bad wolf can't just stroll up to and blow over, right? Well, it might be time to thank the architects who carefully decided how everything should be built instead of just throwing a bunch of straw around.

Nathaniel Mott
Freelance News & Features Writer

Nathaniel Mott is a freelance news and features writer for Tom's Hardware US, covering breaking news, security, and the silliest aspects of the tech industry.

  • 3ogdy
    It was serious until I saw the picture. That's when things degenerated into comedy.
  • alextheblue
    I'm more curious about the new leadership of the Grid Overwatch Division.
  • Th3pwn3r
    I came in here expecting to look at a chair I could sit on, she probably wouldn't be very comfortable...