Until recently, security was a backwater in the world of computing.
Many people cite Albert Einstein’s aphorism “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Only a handful, however, have had the opportunity to discuss the concept with the physicist over breakfast.
As an applied-mathematics student at Harvard, Dr. Neumann had a two-hour breakfast with Einstein on Nov. 8, 1952. What the young math student took away was a deeply held philosophy of design that has remained with him for six decades and has been his governing principle of computing and computer security.
For many of those years, Dr. Neumann (pronounced NOY-man) has remained a voice in the wilderness, tirelessly pointing out that the computer industry has a penchant for repeating the mistakes of the past. He has long been one of the nation’s leading specialists in computer security, and early on he predicted that the security flaws that have accompanied the pell-mell explosion of the computer and Internet industries would have disastrous consequences.
“His biggest contribution is to stress the ‘systems’ nature of the security and reliability problems,” said Steven M. Bellovin, chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission. “That is, trouble occurs not because of one failure, but because of the way many different pieces interact.”
Dr. Bellovin said that it was Dr. Neumann who originally gave him the insight that “complex systems break in complex ways” — that the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy.
The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security, voiced alarmingly this month by the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, who warned of a possible “cyber-Pearl Harbor” attack on the United States.
It is remarkable, then, that years after most of his contemporaries have retired, Dr. Neumann is still at it and has seized the opportunity to start over and redesign computers and software from a “clean slate.”
He is leading a team of researchers in an effort to completely rethink how to make computers and networks secure, in a five-year project financed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, with Robert N. Watson, a computer security researcher at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory.
“I’ve been tilting at the same windmills for basically 40 years,” said Dr. Neumann recently during a lunchtime interview at a Chinese restaurant near his art-filled home in Palo Alto, Calif. “And I get the impression that most of the folks who are responsible don’t want to hear about complexity. They are interested in quick and dirty solutions.”
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