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Gene "Spaf" Spafford

Dr. Spafford has long played a part shaping the Internet and Usenet and is considered the original organizer of the Backbone Cabal.  The work that he did in helping to administer and grow Usenet led to a highly successful career in various areas of computer science, including his major focus in network security.

Dr. Spafford received his M.S. (1981) and Ph.D. (1987) from Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Information and Computer Sciences. He was a member of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (2003-2005), is chair of ACM's US Public Policy Committee, and has served on the CRA Board of Directors. He is currently a professor of computer science at Purdue University and is the Executive Director of the Purdue CERIAS (Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security).

Dr. Spafford has been awarded the 2007 ACM President's Award, the IEEE Computer Society Technical Achievement Award, NCSC/NIST National Computer Systems Security Award, is a Fellow of the AAAS, ACM and IEEE, and has achieved many other honors and awards.

Currently, Dr. Spafford is also serving as the Executive Director of the Advisory Board of the new Institute for Information Assurance at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is acting as an Adjuct Professor in the University's Computer Sciences department.

His personal WWW pages are at http://spaf.cerias.purdue.edu/

Interview (5/17/2007) with Gene Spafford

1. Where are you currently employed?  What is your current role?  What are you currently working on?

I'm a professor at Purdue University. I teach computer science, and I also am the Executive Director of CERIAS -- currently the world's leading multidisciplinary research center in information security issues.  I also am engaged in a number of other positions -- chair of ACM's US Public Policy Committee, serving on the CRA Board of Directors, advisor to some companies -- to name a few.  Thus, there are many things I do.

My own current research is spread over several areas -- major projects right now are in intrusion detection and monitoring systems, and in digital forensics technologies.

2. What benefits has Usenet provided your professional or academic life?

Well, I haven't used Usenet since about 1994, so there haven't been any recent benefits, unless you count the time I don't spend there! :-)

In the 1980s, Usenet helped me polish and practice some of my writing. The need to write short, concise descriptions to explain my point of view helped shape my writing. Further, the feedback I got from others helped me form an understanding of how my writings were being interpreted, and what some of the limitations were communicating in text online.

Browsing some of the groups back then also helped introduce me to some new ideas to explore -- books, papers, and so on.

Another benefit is that it helped me establish some credibility in the community of system admins.  That later on served to help when I was involved in early incident response (the Morris incident, early viruses, the establishment of CERTS and FIRST, etc).  It also helped me hone some of my own admin & security skills, and those got reflected in "Practical Unix Security" in 1991 with Simson Garfinkel.

One downside, however, is that all the extra typing probably helped bring on an RSI condition that -- probably for the rest of my life -- restricts how much I can type.  There are weeks when I have a flare-up such that I can only do a little email at a time. Unfortunate, because I know I have lots more to write. Luckily, I have grad students to help with some of the papers! :-)

3. I've read an account that Mark Horton organized the original 'physical' Backbone, which was simply a list of current Usenet hosts. What circumstances led you to organize the 'political' Backbone Cabal?

Well, it was an outgrowth of my organization of the 2nd generation backbone. When I took over the administration of Usenet on the Georgia Tech machines in about 1983, I noted that it took a long time for some articles to propagate, and often discussion threads got all out of order for many of us who were trying to follow many subthreads.  So, I looked at the "map" of connections that Mark had put together. This was in the early 1980s, and Mark's original "backbone" was in it. I identified a set of about 10 machines that had high capacity links, many subfeeds, and seemed to be maintained by clueful people. I contacted them one at a time and suggested cross linking that they might establish to reduce latency and increase redundancy. Most agreed. We ended up with a pretty robust "core" which was the new backbone.

Once the new backbone was working reasonably well, I established a mailing list for all of us to communicate on issues of configuration, bugs, and so on. We were all facing some issues that most other sites didn't -- capacity, management issues, phone bills, and so on.

Realize that at the time I was doing all this, I was immersed in my PhD research into reliable distributed systems.  I was thinking about how to make the Usenet more fault-tolerant and present consistent views. So, a lot of what influenced me was applying that mindset to the Usenet and exercising my persuasive and diplomatic skills to convince various admins to collaborate.

The next step after the cross-connects and establishing a sense of community was to address some common newsgroup administrative issues, such as rogue "newgroup" control messages from new sites where they didn't understand what was already out there. This led to me establishing the canonical list of newsgroups, which the other "cabal" members bought into. Other things then followed along, and the "Cabal" sort of happened.  People picked that name as a pejorative, so we kind of embraced it. I remember the amusement at being called the "net gods" too.

4. Did Cabal members collaborate primarily through mailing lists?

Yup.  Some newsgroup postings, some (few) encounters at conferences and meetings, and an occasional phone call. But email was the basic medium.

5. Important Usenet developments seemed to coincide with USENIX conferences (news software releases, the Great Renaming, etc). Was meeting face-to-face important for realizing those changes?

Not really, but they seemed a great time to get together and nail down the choices. We were often able to get things discussed in about 2 hours that might take 2-3 weeks of email. Plus, we could see if we really had consensus. If we tried to do that online, we didn't know if someone was thinking, away from his system, or simply too busy to think about it if an answer wasn't forthcoming.

The primary reason several things appeared to happen around Usenix conference is because those were great venues to get other feedback from outside (people don't flame in person so much :-), and to announce the new developments.

6. In hindsight, the Great Renaming was extremely important in bringing order to newsgroups and improving ease of use. Why do you think it was originally met with such resistance?

Two reasons. First, it meant change for users and admins both, and people are often loathe to learn new things even if they are better. (Consider how we are stuck using old, dangerous programming languages, bloated word processors and buggy OS because people don't want to learn anything else.)

A second reason is that the naming didn't actually map to their own understanding of what newsgroups were all about.  In some cases, people argued that topics were social and to others they were related to work or science. So, people got very edgy about how items were named. It is a consistent theme that if you want to get people worked up, challenge their assumptions about the world. Of course, I now do that as part of my professional career. :-)

7. By your account, the Cabal died around 1987. With the Great Renaming completed and rules for newsgroup creation established, did the Cabal establish a system that made its existence unnecessary or was the rapid expansion of Usenet sites after the introduction of NNTP prohibitive toward maintaining the Cabal?

The whole reason for the Cabal originally was to optimize transport across narrow, sparse links. NNTP and the NSFnet did away with that. Later, the Cabal came to represent a means of imposing a (minimal) standard of organization and civility on the Usenet, which was especially important when during any 6 month period about 1/2 of the users were new!

However, as we reached the early 90s with server machines with much greater Usenet capacity, more NNTP traffic than telephone lines, an increasing international presence, and less dependence on corporate largesse to keep the net running, the need for the Cabal faded. Plus, there was no longer any way to try to impose solutions, even through group effort. So, as more people got ruder and less cooperative, there became less of a means to curb that bad behavior. Those of us in the "Cabal" basically gave up, wore out ... or both.

8. Were you involved with other Usenet development or maintenance projects aside from the Backbone Cabal?

Well, I mentioned the connectivity issues.  I did some beta testing and development of B news software, and of various newsreaders. I moderated several groups -- and posted to many. And, of course, I maintained and posted all the various new user and administrative documents almost every month for something like 11 years straight....

The result of posting those documents had a side-effect --- people who needed info, or a referee, or a pen-pal all wrote to me. Some weeks I had 50-60 emails per day (this was before SPAM, so that was a lot) from people I didn't know with questions about what group they should post to, how to set up their software, and so on. I tried to answer each and every one in a meaningful way, including those that were hoaxes and harassment. I also got calls from employers, law enforcement agencies and reporters seeking info about what Usenet was, or how to find someone, or how to get copies of threads that had expired weeks or months earlier. This always picked up around the start and end of every semester.

And, of course, I was the news admin for the GaTech machines from 1983 to 1987.

Looking back now, I wonder at the time and energy I invested in Usenet. Hardly anyone remembers it (with an occasional interview like this being the rare exception). I wonder at how much more I might have accomplished in my career had I devoted that time to my research. And the damage to my hands... (see the answer to #2).

9. Did your expertise in the field of network security aid your Usenet activities? Conversely, has your participation in Usenet and the Cabal aided your network security work?

Oh yes, my work with Usenet definitely influenced my thinking about security. Seeing some of the problems with supporting many versions of software, on different platforms, and maintained by people with a wide range of abilities certainly helped me understand better about the need for simple interfaces and strongly-defined protocols.

Observing how one or two pranksters (or, in a few cases, people with crazy or hateful agendas) could screw up so many things in so many places also illustrated the need for controls over automatic execution of control messages, the need for strong authentication, and that people in positions of authority are not necessarily to be trusted. I'm sure I could come up with many such lessons learned.

I guess you could summarize the above by saying that there are a lot of people who address academic issues and design systems without really understanding who uses them, how they may be (mis)used, and the nuances of graceful degradation. I was immersed in it for years and it has changed how I look at things. Many of my colleagues seem to believe I have a unique view of issues as a result (although I won't speculate as to whether they think those are *good* differences :-).

As to my security work aiding Usenet....well, I really didn't get deeply involved in the network security side of design and research until after the point I left Usenet, and certainly after the point at which I was anything other than an occasional reader. So, I can't say that there was much influence there.

10. How did you feel Usenet would evolve with the advent of the World Wide Web?

I never really gave it much thought. I installed the first WWW server at Purdue, and I established what is one of the oldest continuous archives (starting as the COAST archive in 1992, and now the CERIAS archives). In the early 90s I thought Gopher was interesting, but the format was rather brittle -- hard to program, and things didn't work correctly if you made small errors. Of course, good graphics and high bandwidth weren't as widespread back in the early 90s as now, and a lot of access was still command-line oriented. Thus, it wasn't clear what was coming.

The nature of Usenet has always been somewhat ephemeral -- the posts would appear, and unless you read them within a few days, they were replaced by something else. The material is pushed out into the net, and all you have to do is wait for it to flow by. By analogy, think of standing in a stream and dipping your cup. Of course, as time went on, the little streams became raging torrents, and too many people felt they could dump whatever they wanted.

The WWW is more like a set of billboards. You have to go out and wander to find them -- they don't come to you. Some don't seem to ever change, and others change every time you look at them. Some are public service, some are art, and some are pure advertising ... and it isn't always possible to tell which is which. But the idea is one where it really isn't possible for someone to deface all the other billboards.

Thus, the models are actually rather different. I'm not expert enough in communications in sociology to say if there is actually a significant evolutionary influence there.

11. What role do you think Usenet had in the evolution of forums and blogs?

I think blogs and forums are natural outgrowths of Usenet. People got into the habit of writing essays, and many people are in the habit of reading them. However, it is also the case that many things that are written are not really read at all, and that is like the news, too. Many newsgroups were discussions, but some (particularly the moderated ones) were more like essays or newsletters assembled by editors. We see those now with blogs and collaborative blogs.

Of course, this isn't really a new phenomenon. We have long had the people who told the tall tales at the pub, or who pulled a small audience on the town square, or the town criers. Newspapers, books, and talk radio all show some of the same characteristics. Some people have a need to tell stories and pass along opinion. Some other people may find those useful and insightful, and become regular readers.

It is interesting to see some of the alternative models such as Slashdot and Digg.

Podcasts are another form of this evolution, but they are more difficult to keep up, it seems.

I'm not sure what we may be using in another 15 years, but I expect that we'll have parallels.

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