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Security Fad

By Annalee Newitz

YOU MIGHT THINK that 1980s retro is confined exclusively to the world of pop culture. One glimpse at the outfits everybody wears on American Idol and it's clear the kids are trying to look like some kind of apocalyptic convergence of Pat Benatar, Gary Numan and Michael Jackson. And of course the upcoming movie version of 21 Jump Street means we'll be enjoying recycled '80s TV trash for years to come.

But the '80s nostalgia fad is also taking off in a place that the trend mags never track: the computer industry. I'm not talking about the fact that Steve Jobs is "cutting edge" again--which is scary enough--but the fact that high-tech military gigs are all the rage. Back in the Reagan era, the tens of thousands of engineers who got sucked into corporations with big military contracts called it "the defense industry," but today's police-state teenyboppers are calling it "the security industry." The main difference between "defense" and "security" is that the latter includes protection against nonmilitary info-attacks as well as writing low-level code for missile controllers.

Today's security contractors design things like smart body armor and remote-controlled fighter planes; they develop data-mining tools for terrorist fishing expeditions that plunder profiles on Friendster for signs of insurrectionary activity. The field is so hot that at the security-geek conference CanSec West, participants practically had to fight off the recruiters with rubber hoses. Meanwhile, companies that you'd never associate with security (such as Macromedia) are racing to place people in positions with titles like "Chief Security Officer" and "Security Developer."

The security boom has been good for longtime players in the industry, too. A particularly telling example is PGP, a company founded in 1996. But the PGP story proper begins in 1991, when founder Phil Zimmerman released a free software program called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). The program created a fairly user-friendly way for people to encode their emails using powerful, spook-grade encryption that couldn't be broken by anyone (including spooks). Zimmerman's idea was to bring privacy to the public, but the government worried that the quick spread of PGP to other countries via the web would lead to some kind of compromise of national security. In 1993, after a three-year criminal investigation, Zimmerman was charged with violating export laws--a case that dragged on for three years before the government dropped it. At that point, he founded PGP Inc. to market PGP to desktop users who wanted to encode their emails and to create authenticated digital signatures.

Although security is a hot industry now, back in the early 1990s it was the domain of renegade freedom fighters like Zimmerman, whose pioneering work made it legal to export cryptographic software to other countries. After Zimmerman sold PGP Inc. to megacorporation Network Associates in 1997, the small company almost died. Things hit rock bottom with massive layoffs in 2002, but later that same year a new company was born out of the crashed-and-burned, crypto-to-the-people outfit.

Reconsolidated as PGP Corporation, this new company's business model reflects the changed climate around security. Rather than aiming at end users, PGP is going after corporate clients. Its flagship product is the admittedly drool-worthy PGP Universal, which promises to make it easy for companies to encrypt all their email. The advertorial on the PGP website says PGP Universal "enables communications to travel across organizational boundaries without compromising privacy, security or confidence." This is the sort of pseudo tech talk that could only tantalize execs living in an era of buzzwords that revolve around keeping information "secure" against "attack."

As PGP's history demonstrates, not all of these new security jobs are related to DOJ work per se, although obviously their popularity is being fed by the government's hysteria over cyberterrorism and evil hackers and any other ridiculous cyberkabloomie they can invent. Security, quite simply, is hip.

Perhaps this accounts for all the dreary cheerleading over the Google IPO. I practically fell over laughing when I saw the San Francisco Chronicle headline--they'd spelled out "IPO" in the easily recognized Google font, using rainbow-colored letters bigger than those they'd devoted to the word "war" when the U.S. military invaded Iraq. Google is hotter than crack in the Bay Area right now--you can't go 20 yards without seeing somebody in a Google T-shirt. But what's really interesting is that the search engine giant's latest product, Gmail, is tailor-made for security geeks. Gmail not only holds up to 10 years' worth of mail (perfect for being subpoenaed!), but Google bots search the content of every email in order to deliver "context sensitive" ads (but also perfect for trolling for terrorists). Reagan would be proud.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is ready to go back to the future.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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