By David Scheer, for CNN • Updated 13th June 2018
(CNN) — British cybersecurity expert Alan Paller, who co-authored the world’s first working “kill switch” against hackers using electronic ink, has died at the age of 76.
Paller’s colleague at the SANS Institute, Wael El-Aboul, said he was notified by the organization of Paller’s death after receiving a call from Paller’s wife, Susan.
“Alan was one of the most important and influential people in cyber security,” El-Aboul told CNN. “He brought balance to the field. He made people re-evaluate their perspective in the field.”
El-Aboul said Paller died Monday in an English hospital from cancer.
Paller first made headlines in 1976 when his researchers discovered a way to reliably intercept the electronic signatures used to identify printed pages, citing difficulties in doing so from machines.
The technology, dubbed the “virtual ink attack,” began life as an academic paper that was then published in SANS’ Cyber Security Newsletter.
The “kill switch” described in the paper helped thwart hackers as they attempted to attack the nascent Xerox Xeroxic product line. The underlying technology was then picked up by SANS Institute, which worked with the University of Iowa and Xerox to develop the hardware needed to remove the electronic signature from the printed page.
The breakthrough came at a time when printers used powered by thermal ink instead of inkjet technology, hampering security researchers’ efforts to stop hackers in the act.
“Effectively, if any of your Pagemagazines were breached by an attacker, you’d have difficulty tracing the printout of your destroyed edition to ensure there was not a compromise of the security of any Xerox Xerocom products,” Paller wrote in his 2003 book, Computer security: Cyberspace, Security, and Electronic Defense.
“This paper was a foundation for what most people consider the first effective hacking technique: the electronic ink attack.”
A fellow at the SANS Institute, Sven Tiefenbrunn, said Paller “left an incredible legacy in the field.”
“He was a real patriot,” Tiefenbrunn said. “He didn’t have any interest in politics or cultural diversity, but he stood up for the free societies in the world.”
An accomplished speaker, Paller’s 1997 lectures at Dublin’s King’s College were described by the Journal of Security & Information Management as “some of the most interesting and useful courses ever given.”
Paller also co-authored the book “To defend against cyberterrorism, you must encrypt everything.”
“Alan’s calm way of explaining complex technological concepts to students and managers made him a much-loved teacher and colleague,” according to an online tribute posted by the SANS Institute.
Paller is survived by his wife, his son and his daughter. He also leaves behind the music program he and his late wife started at the University of Iowa.