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Secret handshakes at crypto gala

Spies and engineers gather together for an art appreciation class and schmoozefest.

If art is a key that unlocks the secrets of the soul, then a whole bunch of secrets were let loose last night.

The Cryptographers' Gala took over the hallways and galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to celebrate in style this week's RSA Data Security Conference, the conference that mixes together software engineers, White House officials, and the odd spy or too.

The painting most appropriate for the event was Jackson Pollock's Guardians of the Secret, a 1943 piece with vaguely monstrous animal figures and a secret alphabet woven across the canvas. Surely the cryptographers would gather in clumps to silently contemplate this parallel universe and accept the private key to Pollock's soul. It surely would have made great video.

But the partygoers walked serenely by, whispering about potential deals, too busy to try to decode the abstractions of modern art.

There may be a reason why there are no famous art collectors in the computer industry, except for that rich guy in Redmond.

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Mona Lisa is too classy for Bill Gates's wall.
But if you talk to the art itself, even he isn't really what one could call a connoisseur. When asked about Bill Gates's plan to display digitized art on the walls of his palace (currently in alpha release), Mona Lisa was not impressed.

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Dave Thompson of Spyglass criticizes government rules.

Finally, Dave Thompson of Spyglass (makers of the SurfWatch software that blocks access to unseemly Web sites) stopped in front of "Guardians" and offered his criticism, not of the art, but of the American government and its regulations to limit the export of strong encryption. If the U.S. government was so intent on guarding secrets, Thompson argued, one could always go overseas.

But then, just as I was getting someone to pay attention to the Pollock, the friendly museum guards told us to cease and desist. No pictures in the galleries.

Figure this out: Security guards guarding "Guardians of the Secret" full of secret codes at a security software conference. My head began to spin.

So I went looking to see if this made sense to anybody else. I found Margaret Lewis, the museum guard supervisor, who agreed to answer our questions off-camera. She said she wasn't an Internet user. But she does use the telephone quite frequently and told me that she could see both sides of the issue of individual rights versus the greater good of society.

No pictures, please: A museum guard talks about security.

With that settled, I went back to the main floor and found the man who made the whole evening possible. Not RSA chief Jim Bidzos, but Sun Microsystems distinguished engineer Whitfield Diffie, the creator of public-key cryptography.

Public-key cryptography is an encryption system with two keys, one public that's available to anyone and one private. A message encrypted with one can only be deciphered with the other. Diffie's invention in 1975 has made digital encryption possible on a wide scale. Of course, the explosion of the Internet hasn't hurt either. It'd be convenient to say he's a rather cryptic character, but he was in fact quite willing to put aside his toast and caviar for a few questions.

Diffie knew he was onto something big back in 1975, but he didn't have any idea it would be big business. Thanks to the proliferation of networked information, encryption has turned the corner. When he started out it was cloak-and-dagger stuff, but now it's front-page news.

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Whitfield Diffie never thought crypto would be big business.

That's too bad because big business isn't as really as fun as cloak-and-dagger. I didn't see any shadows lurking in the MOMA corners or even one secret handshake. But I needed to know if the mythic allure of two-way wrist watches and secret decoder rings colored Diffie's childhood dreams.

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Diffie tells CNET about childhood dreams.
With its layers of meaning, irony, and abstraction, modern art was the perfect backdrop to this coming-out party. Often criticized for its elitism, the uncomfortable forms and images of 20th century art are encrypted messages, one could argue: gibberish to many, intended for the understanding of a select few. Perhaps all art begins this way--unfamiliar and unappreciated--but over time, its codes become part of the common language, releasing their treasures.

This report is brought to you by Alex Lash, NEWS.COM reporter/art critic.