PGP Corp. co-founder's startup targets cloud authentication

When Phil Dunkelberger co-founded PGP Corp. in 2002 with Jon Callas, it was to acquire the codebase for the famous encryption technology known as "Pretty Good Privacy" which had been sold to Networks Associates in 1997. That proved a good move for public-key encryption, and now Dunkelberger says his next project -- the formation of a company called Nok Nok Labs -- involves a revolutionary way to support authentication in corporate networks and the cloud.

Although Network Associates (later named McAfee) hadn't managed to do much with the PGP public-key encryption technology, Phil Dunkelberger, then president and CEO of PGP Corp., had confidence that the corporate need for public-key email and file encryption was going to grow.

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That idea paid off, and with a growing roster of global companies using commercial PGP encryption, PGP Corp., which had acquired the technology for less than $2 million, sold it to Symantec two years ago for more than $300 million. Dunkelberger says Nok Nok could have an even bigger impact on security because this time he's out to pave the way to radically improve how authentication for both corporate networks and cloud-based services is done.

"PGP was starting to do what our vision was, managing devices," says Dunkelberger about his tenure as president and CEO at PGP Corp., based in Menlo Park, Calif., and bought by Symantec, which continues to expand the products line.

Dunkelberger contends it's time to basically alter how authentication is done because it's an inflexible array of processes that doesn't meet the demands of cloud computing. The problem today, according to Dunkelberger, is that the range of technologies out there, such as soft tokens, hard tokens, Trusted Platform Module (TPM), biometrics, simple passwords and more have led to something of a "Tower of Babel" for authentication. Nothing talks to anything else and applications lack flexibility to adapt to a variety of authentication platforms on the fly.

"The current options fail to address the need. Is it easy to use? Under all circumstance? Do I have to rip and replace?" Dunkelberger says.

Changing the means for authentication in an application or process is often like tearing down the house to replace the door, he argues. This is especially inadequate in an era when the concept of a network perimeter has largely faded away and cloud computing is growing.

Dunkelberger spoke at a session held at the recent Cloud Security Alliance meeting in Orlando, Fla., to explain these core concepts he expects to formally unveil early next year. He said momentum for this new authentication undertaking is building across the industry and the idea is to support a new authentication protocol designed to be turned on to support a whole variety of existing technologies.

"It's a strong authentication protocol that allows someone to turn on authentication," said Dunkelberger. Though the full description and purpose is yet to be formally unveiled, this protocol, which has a client and server component, is designed to scale across the Internet and it will be a free technology. The goal is to have security vendors, and the larger hardware and software vendors, including mobile giants such as Apple, support the protocol in their products.

"The protocol itself will be defined by working groups," Dunkelberger said, adding there are already about two dozen industry participants involved in the group that will soon be announced, and talks are ongoing with potential end users, including some in the U.S. and U.K. governments.

It is with this with this larger authentication effort in mind that Dunkelberger has launched his fifth startup to date, Nok Nok Labs, based in Palo Alto, Calif., with himself as CEO.

The startup's mission is to build software to support this yet-to-be-unveiled authentication technology. What's known is the intent: to build an authentication platform that could be used with the world's largest cloud-based Web infrastructures.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email:

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