Robert Morris, Encryption and the Pony Express

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Robert Morris Sr. died June 26, 2011. I had the honor of meeting Mr. Morris in 1996 at a Dartmouth Workshop, where he gave an interesting and dynamic talk on transportable agents. He then took questions from the attendees. In my ignorance, I asked him:

“Aren’t you worried that the vast majority of common encryption schemes (SSL, RSA, etc) are based on prime factors of large numbers? If someone found an algorithm for this wouldn’t all common encryption be useless?”

Little did I realize that speculation has been rife for a long time that the NSA had in fact solved this long ago, either by math or vast amounts of hardware or a combination of both. As the former Chief Scientist of the NSA, Morris had obviously been asked the question before by people much smarter and with much more at stake than me. He could have easily brushed it off. Instead, with the infinite patience of parent, he carefully chose his answer.

“Am I worried? No, I’m not worried. However, I can tell you that when US Military Iives are on the line, we do not use these algorithms.”

That pretty much answers the question to his confidence in this form of encryption’s ability to keep secrets.  Asked about the most secure way of sending a message, he recommended snail mail.

In this light, his famous quote about the three golden rules of computer security: “Do not own a computer; do not power it on; and do not use it,” is all the more troublesome and interesting.  From this perspective, there’s no such thing as a secure computer. If you want to keep a secret, there should be no electronic record of it.

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