Dorothy Denning: Leading authority on cybercrime, information warfare

The longtime computer science professor is one of the world's top authorities on encryption and cyberterrorism.

Dorothy Denning -- Author, Professor

Everyone in infosecurity eventually encounters Dorothy Denning, in person or in print.

Dorothy Denning
Dorothy Denning

Denning is regarded as one of the world's authorities on encryption and cyberterrorism. A longtime computer science professor, now teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., Denning has authored more than 120 articles and four books, including 1982's influential Cryptography and Data Security and her most recent, Information Warfare and Security.

Not bad for a gal from Grand Rapids, Mich., who expected to teach high school math or cook for a living. "I just never grew up thinking that being a professor was something I could or would attain," she says.

Since specializing in a then-nascent computer security field, the former marathon runner has devoted a good chunk of her 34-year career to helping others better understand cybercrime and information warfare.

"I don't know anybody in information security who is better in both writing and lecturing about extremely complex concepts so simply and so straightforward," says Donn Parker, another security luminary, who worked with Denning at SRI International in the 1980s.

Denning has a slew of honors throughout the last three decades, including a 2001 Augusta Ada Lovelace Award for her lifetime work from the Association for Women in Computing. She's also recently been named TechnoSecurity's Professional of the Year, the American Computer Science Association's distinguished lecturer in computer security and one of Time's top innovators.

She's also testified before Congress on behalf of controversial encryption policies, such as 1993's ill-fated Clipper chip, which would have enabled federal officials to decipher encoded messages. Denning's support earned her the moniker "Clipper Chick."

"Of course, I didn't convince anybody," she says, laughing lightly. "In the end, the way encryption policy was handled was right. We were right to liberalize it."

She also is renowned for inventing geoencryption, a frequently misunderstood technology used to keep information undecipherable until it reaches its location. Now, she's developing programs for the next generation of computer scientists and cybercrime fighters through her work with military and government students.

Denning is among the first people--male or female--to launch into the information security profession and take on leadership roles. But gender, she maintains, never played a part. "I gravitate towards people doing interesting work, whether male or female. I've always been kind of like that, and I think a lot of people are pretty much gender blind, too."

This was first published in September 2003

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