Glenwood business thrives in secrecy

July 28, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun staff writer

It's Glenwood's best-kept secret, but Trusted Information Systems has made a name for itself in the world of secrecy.

Tucked behind some well-placed trees and a day-care center on Route 97, Stephen T. Walker's company is a pioneer in defending government agencies and corporations against hackers who use networks such as the Internet to invade computers and steal or destroy data.

The 50-year-old former National Security Agency and Pentagon computer security expert started a one-man, home-based business in Warfield Estates in 1983. Since then, he has hired 110 employees and opened satellite offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London.

"I decided that rather than becoming the consummate Pentagon bureaucrat, I should quit while I'm ahead," said Mr. Walker this week, sitting in his office that looks out over Route 97, the Glenwood Garden Center and the pastures beyond.

Now, rather than being a Pentagon bureaucrat, he gets up every morning in his 1830-vintage home built by the founder of Glenwood and walks down a mulched path under a canopy of leaves to his office building.

Despite the laid-back pastoral environment he has created for himself and his casually-dressed employees, Mr. Walker has no trouble dressing up for a trip to Capitol Hill.

In May, Mr. Walker testified against a federal ban on exports of encryption systems, something his old employer and major client, NSA, strongly supported. Encryption allows a computer user to scramble data so that no one without the proper software and code can read it.

Mr. Walker believes the government is simply closing the international market to U.S. companies, while firms in other countries trade freely in the same technology.

Even worse, he argues, large software makers such as Microsoft and Novell don't use encryption in their programs because that would prevent their sale abroad. As a result, he said, programs with encryption aren't widely available in the U.S. either.

Such talk is more likely to be self-defeating than self-serving, he says.

"People have called me and have said, 'I've heard of what you're saying and I am interested in what your company can do for me," he said. On the other hand, "if I got NSA mad at me, then I'd be in big trouble."

"Right now, the economic interest of the country is more important."

Trusted is working on its newest product, a hardware-software combination called Gauntlet. The system runs on an entirely separate computer that serves as a "fire wall" between a computer and potential intruders on a network.

"It's fairly trivial for someone to assume your identity and become you," he said, adding that even one of his own computer experts was impersonated by someone who tapped into the company's computer in Los Angeles.

The employee, working at home in San Diego, was "sniffed" by a hacker. Sniffing involves monitoring all the data that comes over a network -- the Internet in this case -- and looking for passwords.

"The solution is not to type your password over the net," Mr. Walker said.

To get around that, Trusted has a system that uses a palm-sized calculator that does more than add, subtract, multiply and divide.

When a potential computer user enters an identity, the system sends a "challenge" or a number which the user enters into the calculator. The calculator responds with another number, which is then entered as a one-time-only password.

"Somebody can sniff that, but it doesn't help them," Mr. Walker said.

With such technology available to his employees, Mr. Walker has no problem with them working at home. County Council members, when they heard his recent proposal for rezoning to allow his business to expand, were impressed with the fact that the company helps pay for computers for home use during inclement weather and other compelling reasons to stay at home.

Mr. Walker said he liked the idea of working at home with his IBM PC as his business was getting started, especially when home shifted to the beach during the summer.

Working at home required an additional level of secrecy, however, necessitating the use of a post office box rather than his home address.

"The reason for that was that you can't run a computer security company on Shady Lane," he said.

A year after he launched Trusted Information Systems, there was more work than he could handle, so he bought a house on property that included a closed Exxon station. The station was renovated and turned into the company's headquarters, which opened in 1985.

An area resident who worked on the renovation, Billy Hood, routed the company name into wood planks that formerly hung in front of the building and now decorate the wall above the company's reception desk.

By September 1987, the company's 20 employees filled the building and two trailers, and construction of the company's current two-story office building began. But even that wasn't enough. In 1991, the company rented a house in Lisbon, and in 1993 the company bought the nearby historic Howard House.

Offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco opened in 1986 and 1989, respectively, simply to accommodate the hiring of new computer experts.

"There are people there that I couldn't convince to move to

beautiful downtown Glenwood," Mr. Walker explained.

The company's two-person London office, opened last year, is aimed at tapping the European market and providing consulting services for the British government, he said.

On July 6, Mr. Walker received unanimous approval from the county Zoning Board for a minor swap of commercial and residential parcels that will allow the construction of another building behind the existing one to double the company's office space.

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