Crypto pioneer and security chief exits Sun

One in the PKI?


Crypto pioneer and Sun Microsystems' veteran chief security officer Whitfield Diffie has left the company, with database-giant Oracle's acquisition still in the air.

According to Technology Review, Diffie is slated to be a visiting professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, after 18 years at Sun, latterly in the high-profile security role as chief security officer.

It's unclear why Diffie left Sun and whether his exit was related to Oracle's pending takeover or recent layoffs. Oracle, as ever, declined to comment.

Diffie is famous for his ground-breaking invention of public key cryptography - PKI - in 1975. PKI today is taken for granted because it's used so widely to protect emails, documents, and commerce in every-day online communications and business.

It's worth remembering that it was Diffie who helped make this a reality. He sparred with spooks and US politicians, as the government attempted to limit who could use crypto in the interests of "national security."

Diffie joined Sun in 1991 and in 2002 was named chief security officer, with the mission of leading a global initiative to evangelize Sun's security offerings. He was also tasked with talking about major issues in relation to technology security.

It was during one such talking engagement that Diffie defended open source from an attack by Microsoft's then chief security officer Craig Mundie at an RSA Conference in 2002. Mundie had called it a "myth" that open-source code can be more secure than closed, proprietary software.

Diffie, an original and articulate thinker in an industry driven by hype and the herd mentality, argued while open-source wasn't inherently any more secure, it let users audit the code.

"You - the enterprise - have a moral responsibility to audit that code," Diffie responded.

Diffie was not involved in day-to-day product or strategy for Sun, but his loss is somewhat awkward. Sun built up a brains trust of top thinkers and leading achievers in languages and systems during the years. Watching such people go will give the perception of a brain drain and lack of continuity during a delicate period, where thousands of staff have already been cut.

Sun's somewhat academic culture was designed to let ideas and thinking from such people flourish. The culture couldn't be much more different to Oracle, a company known for making its dollars count rather than indulging meta thinking or hiring leading industry ideas people. ®

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