Dan Kaminsky, S.F. native and pioneer of internet security, dies at 42

Dan Kaminsky was an 11-year-old computer whiz working all night behind his bedroom door in St. Francis Wood when his mother, Trudy Maurer, got a phone call alerting her to what her son was up to.

Dan Kaminsky wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a building: Daniel Kaminsky at a computer convention in 2000.

© Angie Roberts

Daniel Kaminsky at a computer convention in 2000.

The call came from the internet administrator of the Western U.S., warning her that someone in the house was “looking around in places where he should not be looking,” specifically military sites, and that he should stop under threat of seeing the family connection shut down.


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Maurer responded with a threat of her own. She took out an ad in The Chronicle saying that “government security is so crappy, even an 11-year-old can break it.” They negotiated a three-day suspension of service, which drove Dan nuts. “He was infuriated that his rights were abrogated,” she said. “At 11 he knew the word abrogated.”

He also knew the word “cybersecurity,” and after that three-day suspension lifted, young Dan went on to prove that he could hack into any system, anywhere. He put that expertise to good use by becoming a preeminent expert in internet security. Kaminsky worked on contract for Microsoft, Google, Cisco and other big technology firms.

Kaminsky died April 23 at his home in San Francisco. The cause of death was diabetic ketoacidosis, said his aunt, Dr. Toby Maurer. He was 42.

“Most people in his profession are nerds,” his mother said, “but Dan was captain of his high school debate team and he could speak to people who knew nothing about cybersecurity in layman terms that they could understand.”

In a 2016 video on hacker history, Kaminsky said: “We made the internet less flammable. … The internet was never designed to be secure. The internet was designed to move pictures of cats. … We didn’t think you’d be moving trillions of dollars on this. What are we going to do? And here’s the answer: Some of us gotta go out and fix it.”

To do so, Kaminsky was perpetually on the road troubleshooting problems on computer networks all over the world. He’d return for a day or two and stay with his mother, then be gone again, sometimes with less than 24 hours’ notice….


Daniel Kaminsky, Internet Security Savior, Dies at 42

In a community known for its biting, sometimes misogynistic discourse on Twitter, Mr. Kaminsky stood out for his empathy. He disdained Twitter pile-ons and served as a mentor to journalists and aspiring hackers. He would often foot a hotel or travel bill to Black Hat for those who could not afford it. When one protégé broke up with her boyfriend, Mr. Kaminsky bought her a plane ticket to go see the young man, believing they were meant to be. (They married.)

He was outspoken when privacy and security were on the line. After the F.B.I. tried to force Apple, in federal court, to weaken the encryption of its iPhones in 2015, James B. Comey, who was then the F.B.I. director, testified to Congress in 2016 that he was not asking for a backdoor, but for Apple to “take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock.”

“I am that vicious guard dog, and that used to be a compliment,” Mr. Kaminsky told this reporter at the time. “The question for Mr. Comey is: What is the policy of the United States right now? Is it to make things more secure or to make them less secure?”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes civil liberties, said in a tweet on Saturday that Mr. Kaminsky had been a “friend of freedom and embodiment of the true hacker spirit.” Jeff Moss, the founder of the DefCon and Black Hat hacking conferences, suggested that Mr. Kaminsky be inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.

Mr. Kaminsky’s generosity extended to his many side projects. When a friend struggled with color blindness, he developed the DanKam, a mobile app that uses a phone’s camera to decipher colors otherwise indecipherable to the colorblind. When his grandmother Raia Maurer, now 97, experienced hearing loss, he refocused his efforts on hearing-aid technology.

And when his aunt, a dermatologist, told him that she could no longer treat under-resourced patients for AIDS-related skin diseases, some potentially fatal, in sub-Saharan Africa and Rohingya refugee camps, Mr. Kaminsky helped develop telemedicine tools for the National Institutes of Health and AMPATH, a health project led by Indiana University that he sought to bring to San Francisco during the coronavirus pandemic.



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