While waiting for a plane from Heathrow to Kuwait in the 1990s, Alan Paller was a bit of a curiosity. During the early days of the stand-up comedy, back when comedy was just about drunken bravado and silly conversation, as the 1970s wore on Alan’s first humour was on writing papers on physics, not on performing for audiences.
Then in 1975 he became part of the Comedy Department of IBM, founding the Next Generation of Multimedia. This also marked the start of Paller’s passion for science. Paller’s subject was the strange world of encryption, with – counterintuitively – the warring, and sometimes suicidal, codes being maintained by PGP (Strong Encryption) and GIMP (Good Imaging Method) used to cloak government documents.
In 1986 Paller became Director of Research for the Chaos Computer Club, an online cryptophile society. Here he set up an elaborate packet detective, dubbed the Cyber Chaos Microscope, in his kitchen to investigate and track the coded traffic across the Internet. By 1988, that gear was borrowed by the FBI and would later be used to search for a potential bomb in the mail.
In 2010 Paller, now a senior fellow at the Hannover Innominate, won first prize in the Ashoka Prize, which recognises entrepreneurial talent, engineering expertise and social impact. He was given $100,000 to develop something he’d built himself that became an emergency warning system that uses fake SMS text messages to warn people about tsunamis in low-lying areas. The primary mandate of the Wounded Bird Trust has been to raise awareness of the threat of tsunamis, and to help people in areas of the world most affected by tsunamis to decide where to go for medical attention, particularly since 80 percent of the medical clinics in India lie within 10 kilometres of a tsunami inundation, he said.
Paller’s interests across various disciplines lent themselves to a traditional approach to security, he said. But “there is not much science in security. There is not much academic research and certainly nothing from the X-ray technology point of view. It is not a fashionable topic and there is no real mechanism to translate this into practical uses.” He created the Anti-Troubleshooter Project to change that.
“In 1994, I got a job at McAfee, which was a reputable security firm,” he said. “They were more concerned with the tradecraft of it than with the cyber side. The people who were involved in policy made a lot of mistakes. They were into technology, and technologists tended to be not keen on policy.” But Paller was a professional, and “others were attracted to the idea of leaving the security problems to the specialists, so they were able to become experts on the security side.”
When McAfee merged with Intel in 2005 to form the Intel Security Group, Paller was appointed Executive Vice President and a member of the management committee. Though McAfee was having revenue growth difficulties, the merger resulted in a new focus on cyber security, with Paller staying on as head of the Group until 2011.
Throughout Paller’s life, he has known that it would not be long before he would travel. After the US Navy’s elite Seal Team 6, whose operatives killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Paller went on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and offered his condolences and congratulations. “I was keen to put down the finger of responsibility for Bin Laden’s death,” he said.
In 2013 he retired from Intel at the age of 76. He still remained attached to the company, and was the subject of a Facebook Week post that went viral. He was a voracious user of the email he downloaded a couple of years ago, he said, because it is the only way to deal with email traffic, and he used it regularly to keep abreast of government activities and announcements.
Paller says his experience as a “regular member of civil society” means that he won’t be able to be part of any large-scale security scheme. Instead, he will be putting his findings into practice, again, finding projects that he can take on himself. “I’ve not taken many of them up,” he said. “My previous experience taught me, however, that you can’t get too caught up in that. It’s important to understand the basic principles of a project and to delegate power. Then you don’t burn out.”