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And Now, For Something Completely Different

Sunday, October 29th, 2006


Last Thursday I moderated a panel at the Computer History Museum (an amazing facility) to mark the 30th anniversary of public key cryptography, specifically the publication of a truly earth shattering paper called, “New Directions in Cryptography,” by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. We had an all-star team on the podium–Whit and Marty of course, joined by Brian Snow (a former top scientist for the NSA), Jim Bidzos (former CEO of RSA Security, who brought crypto into the mass market), Ray Ozzie (Microsoft’s chief software architect, who was RSA’s first big customer with Notes,) and Don Boneh (who is behind a new twist called identity-based encryption). The house was packed. My plan, with six great panelists and only an hour to spend before we took questions, was to pursue a narrative line, telling a story starting by speaking with Whit and to involve the others as the tale progressed.

That scheme worked pretty well–we heard great reminiscences from Diffie, Hellman and rest– but the big revelations came in some startling interplay between Snow and the crypto guys, who faced off against the Agency in their effort to protect privacy and enhance security. Snow had two big points to make. The first was that the NSA is involved in serious business–the life and death dynamics of protecting the US from foes. Mistakes could be disastrous. The other was that the NSA just didn’t get it when it came to, um, handing over the keys to the private sector. His candor let to a meeting of the minds that was sadly lacking during the epic struggle I wrote about in Crypto. It was kind of a national security version of Oprah.

Snow’s most dramatic point was when he addressed the impulse of one person who said to him, post-9/11, to “do whatever you have to do to protect us.” The former super secret crypto wizard warned us that that knee-jerk reaction could well wind up compromising our privacy without increasing our security. “Get it out of your mind that there’s a straight line between liberty and safety,” he said “It is not a linear function.”
During the question and answer session I tried to keep things moving, but probably should have one audience member go on with a lengthy statement he was making, because he was saying that as a former member of the NSA himself, he did some interesting stuff with public key, in the version of it that was brainstormed by the British version of the NSA but kept secret for decades. There’s still lots to learn here, and already people were nudging me to do Crypto: the Sequel. Hey, I’m still talking about the iPod!

By the way, Dan Farber expertly blogged the event. But you can actually hear it for yourself: the event is now a podcast, hosted by Voltage, the company that sponsored the event.

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