Universal Translators

By Tim Mather
October 26, 2009

Of course, we all know the story of the Tower of Babel, typified by a confusion of many languages. And for years, science fiction has included so-called universal translators that can overcome the Tower of Babel problem. It was arguably Star Trek that did the most to popularize the notion of a universal translator. But science fiction is not too far out for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is working on its own 'universal translator,' the Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use (TRANSTAC) program. As DARPA puts it for the mission of this program: "While machine translators cannot fully replace a human linguist who can handle deep and complex interchanges, automatic speech translation technologies will assist military personnel in certain missions and situations where human linguists are unavailable." So, DARPA is working on a speech 'universal translator'.

And, the U.S. Air Force is working on another 'universal translator' - BACN. (Yes, that's pronounced "bacon.") Now, BACN (i.e., the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node) is not just more defense pork spending. BACN fulfills a badly needed requirement for the U.S. military - that is, being able to translate between various incompatible communications systems. This is actually a significant problem for the U.S. military - as well as government civilian agencies working with the military, and for first responders domestically. So, the Air Force is working on a communications 'universal translator'.

But, do we need yet another 'universal translator'? While DARPA works to eliminate a speech Tower of Babel, we (the information security community) have been busy creating our own Tower of Babel. As fast as language barriers have been coming down, we have been erecting an encryption Tower of Babel. Just look at the number of encryption products on the market today, all using a plethora of encoding formats, and yet none of those encryption systems has any interoperability to handle different formats. This is not a security issue involving encryption algorithms or key lengths. This is an interoperability problem that involves encryption formats for messages, text, etc.

We need a solution badly for this encryption Tower of Babel. Who is working on this problem? I don't know, but if you do, then please let me know.


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