Emin Gün Sirer, 36; Cornell University
He attacks the near-impossible and all-too-common problems of the information age
In 2004, Emin Gün Sirer figured out how to hijack the FBI's Web site. The problem wasn't with the Feds; it was with the structure of the Internet itself. Anytime you type an address like "www.fbi.gov" into your browser, your request feeds through several servers that act as the phone booths of the Internet. Sirer realized that many of these directories were insecure and that a hacker could easily reroute all traffic meant for the FBI to a malicious doppelgnger site. "No one even knew this problem was there," says Ken Birman, Sirer's colleague at Cornell. "Gun showed it was there, and he showed how to fix it."
His modest solution? Reorganize the entire Internet. Sirer created a scheme that eliminates the need for vulnerable central servers by distributing information among thousands of smaller computers. The strategy now helps safeguard Web sites through the PlanetLab worldwide academic network-and could someday protect the Web as a whole.
Sirer once dreamed of studying artificial intelligence. "Then I realized that the problems that we face are really nuts-and-bolts problems," he says. Things don't work the way they should, according to Sirer, because most things were never designed to do what they do. The Internet, for instance, began as a research project. As the Web grew, pieces got "globbed to each other," as Sirer puts it, with no well-thought-out organizational structure in place to keep everything running smoothly.
Consider, for example, his current plan to eliminate an age-old scourge: liars. To sort genuine photos and e-mails from doctored impostors and spam, Sirer has built an operating system that marks files with the details of how they were created. For instance, a photo's digital file incorporates the time and place at which it was taken, and altering even one pixel voids its virtual certificate of authenticity. Soon, the FBI may have Sirer to thank not just for protecting its Web site but for devising the digital world's greatest lie detector.-Lauren Aaronsonsingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.