Security Snake Oil

I read a fairly wide range of traditional and online publications, but Playboy magazine has never really been on my list; and I certainly didn’t expect to be referencing it in an article about security.  But the “Threat Level” blog at Technology Review reports on a story in Playboy about a self-styled scientist and software expert who, it appears, conned numerous agencies of the US government out of quite a few million dollars for security software of, at best, questionable value — if it ever really existed at all.

The story involves one Dennis Montgomery, who was born in Arkansas, and received a two-year associate’s degree in medical technology from Grossmont College, near San Diego.   He apparently decided to try his hand at software development:

He maintains he invented and secured copyrights for various technologies related to “pattern recognition,” “anomaly detection” and “data compression.” Montgomery had attained some success with his media-compression software.

This claim in itself is something of a red flag: inventions are generally patented, not copyrighted.  Copyright is intended to protect particular expressions, in writing (including software), images (e.g., photography), and so on.  Registering copyright proves only that the applicant was able to fill out the necessary form and pay the registration fee.

Apparently, Mr. Montgomery approached some members of the Science & Technology Directorate of the CIA, and convinced them that he had developed a technology that could reveal previously unsuspected terrorist messages that were concealed as bar codes in images broadcast, unwittingly,  by the Qatari TV network Al Jazeera.  He claimed that these messages gave latitudes, longitudes, flight numbers, and dates for future terrorist attacks, to be carried out by “sleeper cells” in the US and Europe. Of course, the secret technology he had developed was the only way to find and interpret these codes.

Mr. Montgomery is apparently a pretty good salesman, and he was of course saying things that some people wanted to hear:

Al Jazeera was an inspired target since its pan-Arabic mission had been viewed with suspicion by those who saw an anti-American bias in the network’s coverage. In 2004 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Al Jazeera of “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” reporting.

Ideology is a highly effective prophylactic against the influence of inconvenient facts.

Eventually, reality did win out, with an assist from the French intelligence service, because Montgomery continued to refuse to reveal his methods, and it was not clear why a terrorist organization would use such a round-about method of communication:

The CIA and the French commissioned a technology company to locate or re-create codes in the Al Jazeera transmission. They found definitively that what Montgomery claimed was there was not.

This was not the end of Mr. Montgomery’s work for the US government, however.  He also successfully sold a system that he claimed could automatically recognize weapons from video images; at least one of his then-colleagues has told the FBI that the demonstrations are fake.  He also claimed to have software that could locate submarines from a satellite photograph of the ocean’s surface. (He also told at least one person that he had been abducted by a UFO.)

There is much more of the same recounted in the original story.  What is interesting is that this shows, once again, that wanting something to be true does not make it so, but that people can be blinded by their own preconceptions, and do really irrational things.

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