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The passing of Robert Morris Sr.

With the passing of Robert Morris Sr., there is a hole in the security industry that will never again be filled. I have few people I would refer to as an idol or a mentor. Bob was both of these to me as well as a friend.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/technology/30morris.html

I will always remember the first time I met him. Dartmouth College asked me to come in and speak about computer security. They were in the process of organizing a team to launch a new security institute, and thought it would be beneficial for me to come in and speak to them.

So there I am standing at the front of this impressive presentation hall at one of the nation’s IV league schools. A steady stream of PHDs starts flowing in through the door, and I can remember feeling just a wee bit intimidated. The exception to this rule, was one old hippie who walked in a bit late wearing dirty overalls and boots covered in cow poop. I know it was cow poop because he sat in the middle of the front row and the smell is very distinctive. My first thought was that he was an extremely lost farmer, but no one said anything to him or about him, so I just ignored the situation and continued my presentation.

It was quickly apparent that a good portion of my talk was going right over their heads. This was the late 90’s, so concepts such as stack smashing, kernel level rootkits, etc. were not even on most people’s radar. Throw in some of the honeypot work I was doing at the time, and I had totally over estimated the skill level of my audience. I tried to keep them engaged by asking questions, but the responses I received was either way off base or the sound of crickets.

The exception however was the poop covered hippie farmer. Not only did he follow what I was talking about, he was able to extrapolate on it into additional work I was doing. In fact he was able to quickly solve a few of the problems that had me banging my head against the wall. While I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, I have to admit this individual’s skill level caught me completely off guard. He was the only person in the room I felt truly understood the ramification of the subject matter I was presenting.

After the talk he shook my hand, mentioned he enjoyed reading my security book, and then walked away. I then found out he was Robert Morris Sr., the brainchild behind DES encryption and countless other .mil and NSA projects that will most likely never be declassified.

A bit later Dartmouth approached me to help kick off their Institute for Security Technology Studies. I told them I only had one stipulation to accepting the position, that I would get to work with Bob Morris. I can honestly say that I learned more about security from him than any other individual in this field.

So our industry has lost a great mind that will truly be missed.

Chris

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