• United States



by Dave Gradijan

Diffie: Privacy Laws Could Hurt the Little Guy

Feb 23, 20076 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

Whitfield Diffie has been credited with making privacy possible in the digital age. As a co-inventor of public key cryptography, he is one of the most respected contributors to the field of computer security and is in constant demand as a speaker.

In his day job as Sun Microsystems’ chief security officer, he works out of a corner office in the Sun Labs. He’s just down the hall from where scientists are working on Java-based sensors and Sun’s next-generation Proximity Communication processors, which seek to do away with wire connections.

Though he describes his job as a “marketing” position, Diffie doesn’t sound anything like a corporate pitch man. He met with IDG News Service at his Menlo Park, Calif., office recently to share his thoughts on Microsoft, security and privacy. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

IDG: When the PC went on the network, there were security implications that nobody thought about. Microsoft has spent the last five years fixing all of the security problems that maybe could have been foreseen …

Diffie: Wait a minute. I think there are two issues. I think you’ll find that lots of them were foreseen. I think the critical thing [is] that Microsoft showed that its judgment was correct. If it had paid less attention to security, maybe it would have had less market share.

It had no real motivation, I think, until the last few years to try to fix these things. The interesting thing to me is why it’s been so hard for them to do so, because they must have half the smart people I know about in the industry, and in security, working for them. And I think it has to do with the problems of legacy code, and the legacy interface expectations of their customers.

IDG: Nowadays we don’t hear about widespread security outbreaks, but there’s a sense that many of the things we do on the Internet are not trustworthy. People going to webpages do not have confidence that they are where they think they are.

Diffie: I think that’s a well-placed misconfidence.

IDG: So, are things getting better?

Diffie: Phishing is the security problem, at that level, that I hear the most about right now. But I certainly don’t worry about the security arrangements of going to, where I probably make the single largest most routine money transfer that I initiate. I’m not the least bit worried about that, partly because of the law, and partly because the essential point of SSL [secure sockets layer—a standard used in secure Web connections] is not about the quality of the cryptography—about which there’s often some doubt—but about the fact that the certificate costs enough money that the thieves aren’t putting up a front.

It’s hard for me to believe that [the Internet] is getting relatively more secure. The growth of communications has steadily outrun the protection of communications over the whole history of human communication. Now I conjecture that the expansion of networked communications and of society’s dependence on network communications is outrunning the security of that network and will continue to do so for quite some time.

So the consequence of believing that we’re becoming more vulnerable, although to what events, is hard to say.

IDG: I think that ties into an interesting point you made earlier: This lack of security is a fair price to pay for growth.

Diffie: Look at the biggest claim of theft against Microsoft that’s been made in the last 10 years. It has 99 percent penetration in the Chinese market and 1 percent payment in the Chinese market. The business asset to them of being able to claim that they were ripped off at the same time that they gained this market of 1 billion people is fantastic. Security is always political. That is to say, it always advantages somebody and disadvantages somebody else.

IDG: What are your current thoughts on privacy?

Diffie: I believe in privacy, but privacy is just one of a number of considerations. Privacy of political conversation is essential for a democratic society. Is the privacy of information about yourself necessary for it? That’s not very clear. It’s a very squishy concept. In small communities you have very little privacy, but you have accountability, because you know who the members of the community are.

What bothers me is that information about people is so readily available in a way not auditable to them, to organizations like ChoicePoint, who broker it around and enable other people, who are not legally constrained in what they do with it, to make decisions based on it.

I am, on balance, more pleased with the fact that I can learn lots of information about people in minutes by using the Web than I am concerned about the fact that people can learn lots of information about me that way. And I would not like to see laws that restrict people’s ability to go investigate things.

Here’s my scenario: For all its current faults, it won’t be 10 years before facial recognition gets incredibly good. And it will be a PC thing, not a big money thing. So everybody’s camera will be saying “Hi” to the people who go by. Putting a camera right where you sign your signature with your credit card enables any store to build up a database of its customers. So if they see you coming down the street they can change the display in the window. But then that’s going to produce all these databases of information about people. Very small operations will be able to collect information. Would I like to see that outlawed? I doubt it. I think what outlawing it would be saying [is] that certain classes of big boys—the Fortune 1,000, the secret police—would be allowed to have access to such information, but you little irresponsible children won’t be. So I have a cowboy viewpoint on this.

-Robert McMillan, IDG News Service