Some of the world's top crypto minds shared the stage at the Thirty Years of Public-Key Cryptography anniversary event at the Computer History Museum last night. NYT reporter John Markoff, who has covered Silicon Valley for 30 years, was master of ceremonies, and started off by saying the no technology has had a more profound impact than cryptography, and that the role of public-key cryptography has been under appreciated for its role in the Internet. Without public key cryptography, ecommerce would be an idea as opposed to an enabler of billions of daily transactions.
Dan Boneh, a Stanford professor of computer science and founder of Voltage Security, which specializes in identity-based cryptography, gave a short history of public key cryptography. "This is really a birthday of something that happened about five miles from here, so we are technically on crypto holy ground," Boneh said. You can read all about it in Steven Levy's book Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age, which somehow makes the story of crypto wizards doing battle with the NSA exciting.
Levy led a panel (above) that included crypto pioneers (from left) Whitfield Diffie, currently chief security officer at Sun; Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford; Brian Snow, former technical director for the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate; Jim Bidzos, former CEO of RSA and founder of Verisign; Ray Ozzie, chief software architect at Microsoft; and Dan Boneh. They panel reminisced about the old days, debated some historical issues, including the role of cryptographers in the 1970s working for the UK's version of the NSA, the Clipper chip and export regulations.
Snow (above), who recently retired as what amounted to the chief scientist at the NSA, was voluble, pointing out several times that he was speaking as a citizen, not as an government official. He acknowledged that public needs public-key cryptography but the government may not have wanted the public to have it. The NSA funded many external crypto research projects, which was not necessarily popular inside U.S. intelligence agencies, Snow said. Regarding the export of encryption technology debate that raged in the 1990s, Snow said, "Sorry folks there are bad people in the world that want to kill us....having said that I'll fault the agency for not being open minded in the discussion."
Snow also told a story about speaking to a neighbor after 9/11. Knowing about his day job, the neighbor asked him to do whatever, such as take away some liberties, to be more safe. The audience expected Snow's story to end at that point. Instead he told the crowd, "Get it out of your mind that there's a straight line between liberty and safety. It's not a linear function."
Ray Ozzie, Dan Boneh, Steven Levy
Ozzie noted that in 1996 government export roadblocks went away, and attributed "laziness on the part of industry for not embracing architecture and interface design for secure systems" as the reason for a lack of secure code today. He also said that the diversity of software platforms is a reason why it's difficult to build more secure systems, which is somewhat ironic given that Microsoft is more of a homogeneous platform. His point was that various platform owners would need to cooperate on solving the larger software security problems.
A podcast of the event will be available soon.