Profiles in Science Peter G. Neumann
Killing the Computer to Save It
By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: October 29, 2012
MENLO PARK, Calif. — Many people cite Albert Einstein’s aphorism “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Only a handful, however, have had the opportunity to discuss the concept with the physicist over breakfast.
One of those is Peter G. Neumann, now an 80-year-old computer scientist at SRI International, a pioneering engineering research laboratory here.
He is leading a team of researchers in an effort to completely rethink how to make computers and networks secure, in a five-year project financed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, with Robert N. Watson, a computer security researcher at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory.
A trim and agile man, with piercing eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard, Dr. Neumann has practiced tai chi for decades. But his passion, besides computer security, is music. He plays a variety of instruments, including bassoon, French horn, trombone and piano, and is active in a variety of musical groups. At computer security conferences it has become a tradition for Dr. Neumann to lead his colleagues in song, playing tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan and Tom Lehrer.
That dichotomy can be seen in the Association of Computing Machinery Risks Forum newsgroup, a collection of e-mails reporting computer failures and foibles that Dr. Neumann has edited since 1985. With hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of followers, it is one of the most widely read mailing lists on the Internet — an evolving compendium of computer failures, flaws and privacy issues that he has maintained and annotated with wry comments and the occasional pun. In 1995 the list became the basis for his book “Computer-Related Risks” (Addison-Wesley/ACM Press).