On the first day of the sprawling RSA security industry conference in San Francisco, a giant screen covering the wall of the Moscone Center’s cavernous lobby cycles through the names and headshots of keynote speakers: steely-eyed National Security Agency director Michael Rogers in a crisp military uniform; bearded and besuited Whitfield Diffie and Ron Rivest, legendary inventors of seminal encryption protocols that made the Internet safe for communication and commerce. And then there’s Moxie Marlinspike, peering somberly into the distance wearing a bicycle jersey and an 18-inch-tall helmet shaped like a giant spear of asparagus. “It was the only picture I could find,” Marlinspike deadpans as we walk into the building.
Even without the vegetable headwear, Marlinspike’s wire-thin 6’2″ frame and topknot of blond dreadlocks doesn’t fit the usual profile of the crypto world’s spooks and academics, nor RSA’s corporate types. Walking toward the ballroom where he’s set to speak on the annual Cryptographers’ Panel, however, he tells me it’s not his first time at the conference.
In fact, when Marlinspike made his debut visit to RSA 20 years ago, as a teenager, he wasn’t invited. Lured by the promise of seeing his cryptographer heroes in person, he snuck in, somehow snagging a conference badge without paying the $1,000 registration fee. Later, he made the mistake of handing it off to friends who were more interested in scoring lunch than in hearing about pseudo-random-number generators. They were spotted and kicked out. RSA organizers must have gone so far as to report Marlinspike’s mischief to law enforcement, he says; years later he requested his FBI file and discovered a reference to the incident.
A middle-aged man in a sports coat and jeans approaches us, carrying a Wall Street Journal. He shakes Marlinspike’s hand and thanks him for creating the encrypted messaging …