Making firewall fit the world Trusted's RecoverKey called a compromise with the government

'Universal' encryption aim

Glenwood engineer turns NSA experience into thriving business

December 08, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

If you get stuck in traffic headed toward the local mall this holiday season, Steve Walker has good news for you.

This year could be the last time.

The 53-year-old chief executive of Trusted Information Systems Inc. may go down in Christmas history as the person who made Internet shopping practical. But there's a bittersweet side: In the same stroke, one of the Internet's pioneers may turn out to be the one who began paving over the defiant libertarianism that helped make the Net what it is.

Both legacies have their root in a decision that helped make Walker worth up to $40 million when his company went public in October. After helping lead the fierce resistance to the Clinton administration's 1993 "Clipper chip" proposal, which barred export of most systems to encrypt computer files, the soft-spoken engineer from Glenwood decided to compromise with the government.

If an encryption system includes a descrambler like Trusted's RecoverKey, it will be exportable. But if it doesn't have RecoverKey or something like it, the best modern encryption has to stay in the country. And if a technology can only be used here, history says a global economy will ignore it.

"By making [encryption] exportable, we make it universal," Walker said. And that's what online retailers say they need to convince consumers that shopping online doesn't mean exposing credit card numbers to hackers.

Walker says new technology can make it "hundreds of millions of times harder" to steal information passing over the Internet. Players as big as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Microsoft Corp. are betting it will help revolutionize Internet commerce, an industry that aggressive estimates see reaching $144 billion in sales by 2000.

"There's enough media coverage of the medium, combined with concern about anything new, to make it an issue until we convince people it's not," said Mike Minigan, an America Online Inc. marketing vice president.

Private trustee

But the question nags: Did Walker gain his fortune by selling his techie soul?

Some determined computer people hint that he did. Under the the Clipper chip proposal, encryption could be exported only if the government were given the mathematical keys needed to unlock encrypted files; Walker's technology calls for keys to be placed with a private trustee in some cases.

The federal government won't have the keys in-house, as they would have under Clipper, where civil libertarians feared the government would use them for leisurely fishing expeditions into citizens' lives. But they'll still be available if officials get a search warrant or a subpoena.

"The fundamental question is whether citizens have the right to seek privacy from the government or not," said John Gilmore, a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The ability to use cryptography is the right to seek privacy. They're trying to make that, if not illegal, practically impossible."

Fighting words, and they wound Walker some. But he's been working on the Internet since it was a Pentagon plaything, and he's confident enough to shrug them off.

"Very untrue and very unfair," he insists. "When you get what you want and don't have to give anything up, that's not a compromise. That's a good deal."

Walker an early entry

Steve Walker came to computer security early, as a Northeastern University electrical engineering major in the 1960s. He landed a temporary job at the National Security Agency through Northeastern's cooperative education program. He says his father, who was in military intelligence, was skeptical. But at Fort Meade the son found "thousands of computers" and, in them, a calling.

After NSA, Walker moved to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he spent three years supervising the Pentagon's contract with the firm that built the ARPANet, the computer network often described as the forerunner of the Internet. Then he moved to the office of the secretary of the Defense Department, where he helped build a defense data-sharing network that presaged the sprawling corporate networks known intranets.

Walker spent nine years in Washington, but didn't move there and certainly never developed a politician's sharp elbows. Cheerfully informal, he has a sly wit hinted at by the display on his office wall of mocked-up business cards representing industrial titans -- including Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ben Franklin and Steve Walker. He is also exceptionally good at the delicate art of explaining technology to the uninitiated without talking down to them.

In all, he comes across a lot like Dave Thomas, founder and TV pitchman of the Wendy's fast-food chain.

'Such a nice person'

"He's such a nice person; I really like him," said Dorothy Denning, a Georgetown University computer science professor. "He'd be really nice to work for. The fact that he got all those people to move to Glenwood is amazing."

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