Chapter 14 The Holy Trinity
This was it, this was the day, the meeting that could, better, change everything. A meeting even more important than the one with the Captain. Or this would be it, all done, nothing, if they couldn’t help me.
My first hope, Shea, produced nothing more than a wide-eyed shrug. “I have no clue,” he reported back after he studied the pile of NSA papers. I never heard him say that before. And it worried me. It looks like some advanced speech processing and encryption, a voice coder, whatever that is, he explained, or tried to. Other things, bewildering things that he’d never heard of but promised he’d pay a visit to the library the next day just in case there was anything in print that matched those words.
Our only hope, my only hope, the only chance of saving what was left of the dream would now come down to what the Captain’s mysterious Trinity of experts had to say, and it took another long and sleepless week to set up a meeting with them at the Buttery, the student bar and cafe right in the heart of Trinity College, Orla’s alma mater.
Shea and I agreed to meet me at the front entrance, at the college green, but after sitting in the cold on the hard iron railing for more than half an hour watching the girls pass in and out, I hurried across the cobbled courtyard for the Buttery and just as spitting angry with Shea as ever.
“There he is now,” Shea grinned through nicotine-yellowed teeth. “I thought you forgot about us.” The Buttery was empty and quiet except for Shea and his three new companions, all seated around a metal table topped with what looked like the very same worn vinyl as the Captain’s quarters. They were all well into their cups of steaming coffee, and already seemed too well-acquainted for my comfort.
“I thought we were meeting here?” Shea grinned and knowing full well that we hadn’t agreed. That was Shea’s way, but I’d have to let it pass. I didn’t want to upset our new acquaintances, reveal any kind of rift, and besides, most of my relationship with Shea was focused on not letting it fracture.
Shea introduced me to his new companions and starting with what appeared to be the ringleader. Brendan Mulcahy introduced himself as a lecturer at University College Dublin, and he quietly but confidently described his research into new advances in speech processing. He said that as luck would have it, at least for us, he was very close to achieving one of the very first real-time implementations of the brand new speech processing algorithm that could be at the heart of our possible new phone. And which would leapfrog it beyond any competitors. We were clearly off to a better start now.
He introduced Daragh O’Kelly, one of his PhD students who was also working on the same speech coding but who was more focused on the new generation of high speed digital speech processors that would be needed to make the speech coding and encryption work. The brain to run the mind. Two for two. The signs kept coming. The Captain knew more than he let on.
The third head of the Trinity dwarfed the rest and even the table, tall and gangly with long unkempt hair, a wispy beard, and a piercing gaze, and he instantly reminded me of Rasputin. He introduced himself as Ciaran Keogh, a computer science graduate from Trinity and working on a variety of encryption projects with the European Space Agency.
I’d already spoken on the phone with Brendan and the fact that he’d even turned up for the meeting was at least a good signal that he felt there might be some hope. But even more hopeful, and yet another sign, he was already familiar with the NSA’s phone we were trying to beat because he had previously studied its specifications as part of his own research.
“So what’s your background?” asked Daragh, and for the first time I noticed that he spoke out of the side of his mouth as though he were sharing a secret that he wanted kept out of earshot. I had anticipated that question, although I didn’t expect it to come so quickly in the conversation, and I’d carefully rehearsed a number of responses depending on whether Shea was present or not.
Shea knew my limitations, and therefore my weaknesses. I would have to tell them enough for them to have confidence in me and my dream, but not so much that my bluff would be called by something as simple as a technical question.
As I paused to phrase, Shea folded one arm across his chest, began twisting the tip of his beard with his fingers, and stared at me. “Well,” I said, “Shea and I have been doing some work on speech security, scramblers, but they didn’t involve speech coding or encryption.” Shea nodded and smiled, so far so good. “And I’ve been doing a lot of work with the banks on encryption, but that didn’t involve speech.”
My strategy, thin as it was, was to be as honest as I could be about how little I knew, and focus instead on the strengths of my reputation and connections. The kind of reputation and connections that kept gifting me these opportunities, kept choosing me. The kind of connections that might be great for their careers. And the kind that they might not want to cross. Which is why I closed my pitch by reminding them that the only reason we were having this conversation at all was because of Ireland’s military intelligence and their faith in me.
“So I’m familiar with both but only the basics.” My hope was that by laying myself bare, by not pretending to know about any of this, it might make them more comfortable about the balance of power in this new venture. A power that I couldn’t allow to shift. The biggest gamble, and my newest fear, was that with the introduction of Shea to the Trinity I was in many ways now expendable, from my own startup, before it had even started up.
Brendan described the work he’d done so far on a real implementation of CELP, Code Excited Linear Prediction, and I loved all the words. CELP was the latest and by far greatest advancement in speech coding, one that promised to forever change the world. Or at least the world of private and secret phone calls. The one that would make our new phone superior to any other in the world, and the technology that had yet to be tried in any kind of secure telephone.
“I’m not quite there yet,” he cautioned, and I instantly admired that caution. “It’ll work, I’m confident, but still some fundamental issues to resolve.” Fundamental issues didn’t sound good. Fundamental issues sounded like he was still at the theory phase.
“So,” I asked the toughest and probably most important question of the entire moment, “How long do you think it will take?” I didn’t explain what take meant, because I knew he knew. There was only one goal here, one single magnificent prize, and ours, mine for the taking, as long as he had the right answer.
“Hard to say.” That was the wrong answer, and my voices screamed in chorus. He paused again, and looked to Daragh for help. “Maybe 18 months?” and he could tell that was the very wrong answer as my heart fell and my face followed. Daragh interjected, and the first signal that he was more confident and perhaps more ambitious about the project. “That’s the worst case,” he said. “I think with enough resources and a little luck we could halve that.” He glanced at his boss and mentor for agreement and Brendan shrugged and nodded.
Half didn’t sound much better. None of this sounded better, or even good. I couldn’t wait 18 months just to see if this key technology even worked. I couldn’t wait half that. Neither could the army. And who knows how many other companies with smarter people and deeper pockets would arrive there much sooner.
Shea seemed to sense my disappointment, and share it. Everyone was racing to be the first to announce the launch of a CELP-based secure phone, and we had to win that race. Even though we had neither started nor knew where the starting line was. “Would more money help?’asked Shea, and I wasn’t sure if he meant more resources or trying to entice Brendan with a personal incentive. “More money always helps,” Brendan replied, “but I’m not sure in this case. It’s about people, people who know CELP, and there aren’t many.”
Shea looked at me “Do you want to move on to security?” It was a valid suggestion. With all the focus on speech coding, it was easy to forget that the real purpose of the phone and this meeting was security. CELP was only about speech quality, maybe we were too fixated on it.
“Sure,” I said. At least I would have some expertise to share.
“Anyone familiar with COCOM,” I asked, desperately hoping that no one was and I was right, as the question was greeted with blank stares. This was good, I had them, at least for a moment. Time to shine.
“It’s a kind of arms control treaty,” I explained, “but for encryption,” as I desperately tried to remember any tidbits from my conversation with the Captain just a week earlier.
“The Americans have classified encryption as a munition, a weapon, as a way to restrict its use, to stop people from making encryption the Americans can’t break.”
The revelation was greeted with agreeing nods and raised eyebrows. This was good. “So they persuaded a bunch of allies to sign on to COCOM so that they could force other countries to enforce the same restrictions as the US.” No one seemed to be joining the dots, so I led them with a steady hand.
“Ireland isn’t a signatory to COCOM, so we have no crypto restrictions.” The heads stopped nodding as the eyes widened. “We can make our encryption as strong and unbreakable as technology will allow. And there’s nothing they can do.” I had no idea then how wrong that statement would be, but for now, it was about rallying these three essential strangers.
Ciaran spoke for the first time, and clearly eager to establish dominion over his domain.
“You’re familiar with DES, right?”
I nodded dismissively, of course I was. Everyone in this business was. Although as long as no one asked me too much about it. The Data Encryption Standard had been the de facto security and encryption standard across the world for years, developed by IBM, approved by the Americans, and used by almost every bank in the world to protect money and secrets.
It was in the black encryption boxes I’d sold to the banks, even though there were rumors that either it was close to being cracked, or already had been, and therefore couldn’t be fully trusted. Or worse, it was true that the Americans had created, injected, a backdoor in the algorithm as part of their deal with IBM, and therefore it was safe to use against everyone except the Americans. The doubts and rumors around DES were the very reason for the meeting with the Captain about the phone.
“You’re limited to 56 bit DES, if you want to stay on the right side of the Americans.” said Ciaran. “There’s been a lot of talk that it’s already been cracked, but only theoretically. It’s still probably safe for another five or ten years at least.”
I established back a little. “It’s no longer about whether DES is still secure. It’s the fact that no one really has much faith in it any more.” He nodded, I assumed in agreement, and I felt we’d established a boundary. I finally felt comfortable enough to reveal my full hand. “My thinking is if we’re a neutral country, no COCOM or licensing issues, if we want to be taken seriously we have to push this phone to its limits. The most powerful encryption technology will allow.”
The quiet room fell even more silent, except for the bustle and clanging of the kitchen. But even they seemed to sense the change in the air. This would be a significant moment, some indication from these three academics that they were in any way willing to take this enormous risk with a complete stranger, a risk that could jeopardize their careers.
Brendan seemed to answer for all three when he turned to Ciaran. “How far could we push it?” They were in.
“If Daragh can push the DSPs, I dunno, maybe 256 bit key length. 512 at most.”
“It will all depend on the complexity of the encryption algorithm,” countered Daragh. “But, if we can get away with one DSP for the speech processing, and a separate one just for encryption, 512 bit might be possible.”
I had no idea what 512 bit meant, and I wasn’t sure if they knew it. I tried to do the calculations quickly in my head and blurted out my first and possibly fatal mistake. “So if we pushed the key length to, say, 256 bits, that would make it, what? Roughly four times stronger than DES?”
The room went silent again, but for a different reason, and the worst of reasons. It was a bluff too far. For just a moment I hoped desperately that the silence meant I’d asked an even smarter question, but it was not to be.
Ciaran grinned to the room, Daragh grinned back, though not as broadly, and Ciaran returned a withering and condescending gaze at me. And for the first time since we’d met less than half an hour previously, I thought I didn’t really like him.
“That’s not how it works,” he explained, and no one else in the group was comfortable enough with the gaffe to even look directly at me. For the first time since we’d met, I’d revealed my hand, almost fully, and a terrible hand at that.
“If the encryption algorithm is strong,” said Ciaran, “then the key is the key. The longer the key, meaning the more bits it has, the harder it becomes to crack it.” I knew that, and I nodded that I knew. But he was still grinning, just a little. And worse, I think he was becoming a little skeptical of me and the discussion and the venture.
I tried my best to recover from the foul, save something. “I know that,” my voice was cracking and a little too high pitched. “I’m just not that familiar with public key systems.”
I couldn’t tell if it worked, if any face was saved, but Ciaran was in full professorial mode.
“Every bit you add to the key length roughly doubles the effort and time to crack the key.” He stared at me, obviously knowing I was trying and failing to do that calculation in my head. “If a 56 bit key took, say, ten years to crack, 57 bits would take 20 years, 58 bits would take forty years, 59 bit eighty years.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” Daragh chimed in. “But pretty close.”
Ciaran ignored the challenge. “If you used all of the world’s fastest Cray computers to try to break a 512 bit key, it would take a few times the life of the universe to crack the key.” He put me out of my misery. “We’re talking about billions of years.”
“Got it. Like I said, encryption is not exactly my thing.”
“If we can’t use DES,” said Shea, and maybe just trying to ease my discomfort, “then what are our options? Key length is irrelevant if we don’t have a solid encryption algorithm, right?”
Ciaran thought that our best option would be to create a version of DES that was much stronger, eliminate all the known weaknesses, and add in a few unique twists that could maximize its resistance to attacks by the NSA. “We could eventually create our own algorithm, and I think we should. But it could take a few years.”
The rest of the conversation was just a hum to me, as the other four exchanged ideas on key management, whether we’d go with a smart private key like the current STUIII, or try something more secure and courageous like an RSA or Diffie Hellman Public key System.
Shea said he could handle the telephone part, that we’d probably have to build our own phone and find a way to integrate it with everything else. I remained silent, I had no choice, I couldn’t risk any further loss of face. I tried to embrace my ignorance, showing an intense interest in every suggestion and hanging on every word. For now, I was willing to be the student. From the corner of my eye I would catch glances from Ciaran but my eyes resisted the temptation in case the return of a glance would confirm what I suspected he suspected.
About an hour later we agreed that we all had work to do and very little time to do it. As Shea offered to walk Brendan to his car because it was on the way to his bike, I made a final desperate effort to regain some degree of face and control by assuring the group that I would take these discussions back to my contacts at the Department of Defense and see if they had any thoughts on how they’d like us to proceed.
There was no way of telling if it worked, none of the four faces gave away any clue. My fate and future was now in their hands, and I cursed myself all the way back to the car.