Collaboration counts in cryptography


rsd17 011 0097a
Admiral Bobby R. Inman delivered the Center for International Security and Cooperation's annual Drell Lecture on Feb. 22. His talk was titled, “The Challenges of Providing Data Security.”
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

When governments and scholars work together on data security, society benefits from better safeguards and protections, a U.S. intelligence expert said Wednesday.

The difficulty is keeping up with technology and societal trends, Admiral Bobby R. Inman said at the Center for International Security and Cooperation's annual Drell Lecture for 2017. His talk was titled, “The Challenges of Providing Data Security.”

Inman, whose U.S. Navy career spanned 31 years, served as the director of the National Security Agency, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and held other influential positions in the U.S. intelligence community. After retiring from the Navy, Inman worked on start-ups in the private sector, in higher education, and as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He is currently the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy at the University of Texas, Austin.

'9/11 changed everything'

During his talk, Inman recounted the early days of cryptography and the dialogue between government officials like himself and scholars at universities such as Stanford and UC Berkeley. Cryptography or cryptology is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication in the presence of third parties typically known as adversaries.

Inman was a key driver behind establishing the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978. The purpose of the “FISA” court was to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against foreign spies inside the United States by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Today, technology has overwhelmed many issues regarding how the government tracks the communications of foreign entities, Inman said. And events have ushered in a different orientation on what type of information and from whom is sought by U.S. intelligence. “9/11 changed everything,” he added.

After 9/11, U.S. intelligence began to focus on foreign individuals in addition to the traditional foreign state actors, Inman said. He pointed out the value of such data collection, as penetrating small groups with human agents is extraordinarily difficult and dangerous.

“The only way you’re likely to get a lead on them (terrorists or narcotic traffickers) is through their communications,” he said.

The Internet, especially social media, has exploded in usage and made data security efforts even more complex, Inman said. “A vastly different world.” As a result, serious privacy, commercial usages and intellectual property issues need to be resolved more than ever. He noted that the rule of law is important to follow when the governmnt or other entities collect and examine communications data.

Inman is particularly worried about how “basic issues of ethics and morality” have eroded in society, which results in people scheming to sell private data for profit that puts others at risk. Another issue involves how to prevent terrorist groups from preying upon mentally weak people and recruiting them over the Internet.

A key reason Inman was invited to be the Drell speaker this year was his connection to Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie, two pioneering cryptographers from CISAC who drew Inman’s attention in the mid-1970s when they wrote a groundbreaking paper in their field of study. The three later established long-running friendships that produced strong cryptography frameworks.

Inman said, “We were privileged to start the dialogue. That’s where you begin to solve problems,” as fears and misperceptions can be resolved through discussions and openness. “I think what we need is a repeat of pulling together people” from academia and government to deal with today’s security threats. “We need to assess where we are.”

His concern is who would convene such a dialogue. “We’re in a pretty bumpy time, nationally,” said Inman, who urges a neutral party to be such a convener. On broader security fronts, Inman said he is most apprehensive about a possible nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India.

Legacy of Drell

The event included a tribute to Sidney Drell, who passed away last December at the age of 90. Drell co-founded CISAC, and jointly directed it from 1983 to 1989. The Drell Lecture, which is named after him, is an annual public event sponsored by CISAC. By tradition, the lecturer addresses a current and critical national or international security issue that has important scientific or technical dimensions.

In her opening remarks, Amy Zegart, co-director of CISAC, described Drell as a “true giant in the field of theoretical physics” who devoted his life’s work to reducing the threat of nuclear catastrophe. One trademarks of the Drell lecture was that its namesake had the opportunity to ask the first question of the speaker. “He had a unique way of asking penetrating questions" with gentle decency and fairness, she added.

CISAC’s William Perry, also on hand to discuss Drell’s legacy, said, “Sid Drell was truly a man for all seasons” who excelled in various fields of academic and policy. Perry first met Drell 55 years ago when he was beginning his own career in nuclear arms control. “Sid’s deep interest in arms control led to him teaming up with John Lewis” to launch CISAC, he noted.

“He was an extraordinary man,” Perry said, “and we shall never see his like again.”

Drell was a fan of classical music, especially the St. Lawrence String Quartet, a chamber music group whose music was piped in to the Bechtel Conference Room before the event began.

Follow CISAC at @StanfordCISAC and


Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,