MENLO PARK -- The threat is always there -- in your car, at the office, on the table next to where you sleep at night: a near-biblical plague of worms, phisher kings, identity thieves, even cyberterrorists.
As computer networks have been transformed into a global battlefield, where America faces what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently called a "cyber-Pearl Harbor," security experts who understand those vast neural systems have become prized recruits in an invisible war.
No one has stood watch on the wall holding back the hidden hordes longer than Peter G. Neumann (pronounced NOY-man). He was there at the dawn of the computer age and helped usher in its more muscular modern era with his pioneering work in Multics, an innovative operating system in the 1960s. Now, at 80, Neumann is leading an effort to rescue the computer from potentially fatal flaws encoded in its DNA.
As senior principal scientist in the computer laboratory at SRI International, a nerd think tank, he and other brainiacs are attempting to turn every computer and mobile device into a fortress -- a firewall insurmountable by hackers. If Neumann can pull it off, creating a safe computer platform will be the crowning achievement of 60 years' work. "This is a chance, maybe the only chance I'll ever see, to really pull together everything that I've learned," he says. "Anything is within our scope if it leads to something dramatically better than everything we've got today."
His work began when he programmed his first IBM mainframe -- which had zero memory, a simple stack of cards and some blinking lights. That was in 1953, two years before Steve Jobs was born. Two years after Jobs' death, Neumann is leading a five-year project -- dubbed "Clean Slate" by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is picking up the tab -- to re-imagine computers and their networks from the ground up.
The last big collaboration between DARPA and SRI was when they more or less invented the Internet. What Neumann is attempting now is almost as hard: He and a team at the University of Cambridge in England are adding so-called separation kernels to the computer's guts. These contamination chambers are intended to keep potentially untrustworthy code away from the pristine data composed elsewhere in the device.
If it works, it will address one of today's most vexing dilemmas. "Ordinary people hate it that their data is not secure," says Peter Denning, chairman of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. "Many have lost faith in Microsoft and Apple to protect their data."
Neumann, on the other hand, inspires faith. Despite decades as a computer cop, he is anything but some elder-crank telling hacker kids to get off his digital lawn. "The question of security has gone from obscurity to probably the most central, and most difficult, question to answer today in the digital domain," says Paul Saffo, the renowned futurist. "How do we balance the need for security and reliability with the equally important need for openness and flexibility? Peter has been in the thick of this stuff, and over the decades he's consistently had some of the most original insights."
Neumann's team has already produced new hardware specifications that will secure operating systems as never before, and which soon will be available for other tech-heads to field-test. But creating a truly "clean slate" for a wired world has forced Neumann to think outside the computer box. How can his team improve what is now a crazy quilt of patches on top of workarounds, protected by toothless encryption? Fueling the project, he says, is a simple question: "If you were to start over again, what would you do differently?"
Looking around his office at SRI, where research papers and scientific journals accumulated over 41 years climb to the ceiling, Neumann says, "This is what I've been doing for all my life, trying to build things that are very complex, yet simple, where all the pieces fit together like a Lego set." As his awareness of the threat to American computer systems has expanded, the aperture of office space that surrounds him has narrowed to the point that Neumann could almost certainly survive a thermonuclear blast.
Neumann came to the institute after a decade at Bell Labs, where he did pioneering work on Multics, forerunner to the Unix operating system, which was originally spelled Unics. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1954, he worked on the Mark I and Mark IV computers, codesigning a system that translated computer symbols into musical notes. "That was revolutionary," he says, "in the sense that it took computers from the numerical world of mathematical machine language into symbolic processing."
Neumann got into Harvard on the strength of a perfect 800 score on his math SAT, and for him, the connection between math and music was always powerful. He played piano by the third grade and was in Princeton, N.J., for a performance with the Harvard Glee Club in 1952 when he was granted an audience with Albert Einstein. Neumann's mother, Elsa Schmid Neumann, was an accomplished mosaicist, who taught Einstein's stepdaughter, Margot. In return, she was given permission to do a portrait of the great man.
"My mother used to go out and sit motionless on the floor in front of his desk for three hours," Neumann says. After she completed the mosaic portrait, Einstein sent her a letter. "I don't know how out of these intractable stone materials," he wrote, "you were able to capture my innermost spirit." Neumann donated the portrait to Boston University but keeps a print on his office wall.
A budding Einstein
Einstein and his young pupil discussed mathematics, the United Nations, Israel and talked a lot about the complexity of music composed by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. "We talked about fugues," recalls Neumann, "and I asked him, 'What do you think of Brahms?' Einstein said, 'I have never understood Brahms. I believe he was burning the midnight oil, trying to be complicated.' The idea that came very strongly out of my session with Einstein was that you can't oversimplify things."
And yet, for six decades he has watched computer systems grow ever more complicated.
He worries, for instance, about a democratic society moving inexorably toward Internet voting. "Being concerned about the implications of fraud in electronic voter systems is commonplace today, but it's a field pioneered by Peter," says Robert N.M. Watson, Neumann's Cambridge counterpart on the Clean Slate project. He testified four times against electronic touch-screen voting machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems, which Santa Clara County supervisors went ahead and bought anyway for $20 million. Secretary of State Debra Bowen subsequently ruled that the machines were untrustworthy, and could only be used by the blind.
Neumann also frets about something even more difficult to change than computer technology: human behavior. "Every time there's a new app, people rush in like lemmings, clicking on stuff that is very dangerous without understanding the implications," he said. "You're basically at the mercy of intruders, insiders and the government -- which wants trapdoors in the system so they can keep track of everything that's going on." For his part, Neumann keeps his digital hands clean, saying he doesn't use Facebook because it's "riddled with flaws."
Oh, and that digital Pearl Harbor? Neumann says it probably already happened. As was widely reported in 2010, it's likely cyber-warriors demolished Iranian nuclear centrifuges using the Stuxnet virus, despite not having direct access to Iran's computers. "It's equally possible for our national infrastructures to be attacked as it is for us to attack others," Neumann says. "Unfortunately, our defenses continue to be inadequate."
He was one of the first sentinels posted on that electronic wall, and at an age most men would consider long past retirement, Neumann has no intention of climbing down.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.
Wife: Elizabeth S. Neumann
What keeps him young: Tai chi and yoga. Plays five different musical instruments in four bands, and once sang backup on a CD with Norah Jones.
Invaluable hobby: Moderates ACM Risks Forum, the go-to Listserv on network security
Parents: Mother, Elsa Schmid Neumann, artist: While on the way to the Statue of Liberty with Mom, they ran into Georgia O Keeffe, who despite her many years in New York had never been to the monument, so she tagged along. Father, J.B. Neumann, influential art dealer: During the recession, "my father was trying to sell Paul Klees for $300. Very few people wanted them. I remember he would borrow money from the elevator man sometimes for Christmas because there wasn t enough to go around.
Children: Daughter, Helen Krutina Neumann practices Eastern medicine in West Tisbury, Mass. Two sons, Chris and John, died of different causes as college sophomores.