As FTC adds encryption to its website, government remains unsure on corporate use

The Federal Trade Commission’s website just got a whole lot safer for people to peruse after the government agency said Friday that it now supports HTTPS encryption. While it used to provide secure transport for the parts of the website that dealt with sensitive information like complaint data and email subscriptions, this is the first time that secure browsing covers the entire site, the FTC said.

When a website is secured through the HTTPS communication protocol, all data passed between the site and the person who is accessing it will be encrypted through the use of either the SSL or TLS encryption protocols. Basically, the person’s browser initiates communication with the locked-down website and through the exchanging of encryption keys, all information should be scrambled from prying eyes.

In theory, this process works fine, but as the latest FREAK bug demonstrates, there can be some holes in the system, especially if the browsers or devices in questions use ineffective security protocols to speak to websites. In the case of FREAK, Android browsers using the OpenSSL protocol, Safari browsers using the Apple TLS/SSL protocol and now all supported versions of Windows that use the Schannel security package (sorry IE users) are vulnerable to hackers who can essentially weaken the encryption that takes place.

Still, many sites use HTTPS as it is one of the most common tools to prevent eavesdroppers from snooping into website sessions. In the case of the FTC, it may seem like a no-brainer to add encryption, but the U.S. government hasn’t always showed support with encryption technology, especially when it comes to tech companies and mobile-device makers who use the tech to mask data.

Both the U.S. and U.K. governments have made it clear they feel that companies using encrypted communications can impede government investigations and even the Chinese government has jumped on the bandwagon with a proposed law that would require tech companies to hand over their encryption keys.

Ironically, a leaked U.S. report on cyber threats explained that encryption technology is the “[b]est defense to protect data,” which shows that the U.S. government hasn’t quite made up its mind on where it sees encryption technology. If it protects consumers from spying eyes as in the case of the FTC website, then that’s great, but if the government perceives that the technology may prevent it from doing its job, it’s a no-go.

Either way, the corporate sector shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to developing new businesses around encryptions, with recent funding rounds for encryption-centric startups like CipherCloud and Ionic Security.

The U.S. government, as well, still has a long way to go. Many .gov domains like whitehouse.gov, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of the Treasure and NASA’s website remain unencrypted. So expect this tug-of-war between the need to protect and the government’s need to scan encrypted company data in the case of investigations to continue.

Today in Cleantech

It’s the big smart grid IPO of the year. Silver Spring Networks, the most successful smart meter-smart grid networking startup out there, has filed for an initial public offering to raise as much as $150 million on the New York Stock Exchange. We’ve been waiting for this one for a long time. SSN’s Internet protocol-based networking and 900-megahertz radios are inside about 8 million smart meters now deployed and a total of 17 million under contract, mostly in the United States, but also in Australia and potentially in Europe and South America as well. Unlike some of its fellow greentech IPO candidates in industry sectors such as biofuels and solar power, Silver Spring has revenues — $70.22 million in 2010 and $46.69 million so far this year, although it’s still not a profitable company. Then again, SSN works with slow-moving utilities as its clients, meaning it can take years for projects to move from initiation to revenue-generation. Indeed, beyond the potential good news this IPO represents to Silver Spring’s investors — including big shareholder Foundation Capital with 41.5 percent of shares, but also Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, W.R. Holdings, NCD Investors, Contra Costa Capital and JVB Properties — there’s the value in finally seeing a smart grid company take itself to the public markets. The smart grid sector’s exits have almost exclusively been via acquisitions. While some pretty big payouts have been happening there, a successful Silver Spring IPO could prove that startups in the sector can make it in the utility-driven smart grid world on their own.

Today in Cloud

Today is World IPv6 day, and overnight large network providers and website owners have switched to use the IPv6 protocol to address their sites for 24 hours. In theory, few people will notice, and that’s a good thing. IPv4 is the current protocol used to assign addresses to servers and all the other devices that connect to the network. Designed to cope with an inconceivable number of devices back in 1981, the 32-bit addressing space can cope with 4,294,967,296 addresses… and it’s almost full. IPv6 is a newer protocol that will allow the network to carry a far greater number of devices, getting us out of the impending problem facing IPv4 and also creating enough capacity to cope with the promised Web of Things in which your car, your house, your refrigerator and more may be assigned a unique address. In theory, most hardware and software should cope seamlessly with any permanent transition from IPv4 to IPv6 addresses. Today’s test is intended to prove the theory, and if you’re reading this it would appear to have been proved correct.

Today in Cleantech

Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) is dead — long live Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). That’s one way to frame the news from CNET that, in the coming weeks, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority is going to hand out for distribution the last blocks of the roughly 4.3 billion addresses available under IPv4. That seemed like enough back in the late 70’s when Vint Cerf decided to use 32-bit addresses for the Internet. But beyond improved functionality and security features, IPv6 also uses 128-bit addresses, which should make the supply pretty much inexhaustible. So what does this mean for green technology? Well, the smart grid is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating an “internet of things” that will commune with each other via IP — and companies that are relying on IP for their smart grid plans had better be up to speed on IPv6. Indeed, would-be smart grid giant Cisco and smart grid networking upstart Silver Spring Networks have been touting the virtues of IPv6 for years now.

Why Apple Could Be a Loser In The Comcast-NBC Deal

Comcast’s proposed deal to gain control of NBC Universal has brought predictable expressions of concern from public interest groups and federal officials in Washington about its potential to harm the interests of consumers, advertisers and competitors. Comcast itself has been quick to acknowledge that potential — up to a point, at least — and has moved to demonstrate its “good faith” in addressing those concerns with regulators by, among other things, promising to deal fairly with competitors and downplaying plans to raise paywalls around Hulu and other web-video services. One company not typically included among those that could be harmed by the proposed merger, however, is Apple. Yet if the NBC-Comcast deal goes through as proposed it could present a serious hurdle to Apple’s long-term plans to conquer video.

Data Center Management: Lessons for the Grid

Utilities are raking in stimulus funds and smart meter manufacturers are working feverishly to imbue the grid with the smarts to redistribute the electrical load down to the household level when consumption rates spike. Envision automatically time shifting that EV charging or dish washing cycle to cheaper overnight hours and you’ve got the idea. It may sound complicated, but efforts to minimize data centers’ carbon footprints offer many lessons — and incentives — for just this sort of smart grid innovation.

As Standards Evolve, Smart Grid Eyes IP

Standards for smart energy technology were all over the Green:Net conference last month, and the issues raised at our event hit the news this week, as government agencies started pushing the standards ball forward. While some players say they’d like to see the market chart the course on standards, urgency surrounding global warming and utility timelines may force the discussion toward Internet protocol.