Donn B. Parker (1929-2021)

CBI lost one of its longtime, influential friends in retired SRI Computer Scientist and computer security specialist Donn Parker with his passing on October 9, 2021. Donn had recently published a memoir available on Amazon Kindle.  We had exchanged emails several months back related to this, and was glad to learn of the project, which he titled Donn B. Parker, Himself.

I had the great pleasure of going out to Silicon Valley and interviewing Donn in his home in 2003. Preparing for this interview, my first in computer security, led to others such as interviewing James Bidzos and Martin Hellman, and soon thereafter a major National Science Foundation Project on Computer Security, where I conducted about 30 additional oral histories with pioneers including some of Donn’s friends like William Murray and Gene Spafford. Donn, Gene, and Bill served on our advisory committee for that project. I was always grateful for Donn’s incredible support of me, my work, and of CBI, and for helping me make computer security and privacy one of my research specialties. Also, very grateful to Gene and Bill.

Donn was a Trustee of the Charles Babbage Foundation, a supportive organization to CBI from its origins in the late 1970s, concurrent to CBI’s formation, until the early 2000s when it renamed and revised its mission, becoming the IT History Society.

Donn completed a master’s degree in Mathematics in 1954 at the University of California Berkeley. He began work at General Dynamics Corporation, a defense contractor. While there, he moved from being a programmer to the manager of programming operations. He left General Dynamics to join Control Data Corporation, where he also was highly successful. In 1969, he joined SRI International and went on to a prolific 35-year career as a Senior Consultant for this path breaking nonprofit research institution for computer research.

Donn was the first serious researcher to extensively study computer crime and he became an unparalleled expert on the topic. He worked as a Senior Scientist at SRI International and did much of his work there, supported for many years by the National Science Foundation, and wrote many influential books.

During his time as an officer and Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, his writings included Crime by Computer (1976) and Fighting Computer Crime (1983). In all he published seven books and countless articles. As an unparalleled expert he served as a consultant and was frequently interviewed by journalists as more and more media began to focus on computer crime. He did many corporate audits and trained law enforcement in computer crime investigation techniques; this included his training of detectives throughout the U.S., in Scotland Yard, in Japan, in Norway, and other countries.

Donn Parker speaking
Photo credit
StaffHost Europe
SRI Computer Scientist and computer security specialist Donn Parker.

Donn was also important in providing institutional infrastructure. He was a founder of the International Information Integrity Institute, or I-4. This is an organization in which a couple hundred of chief security officers at the largest companies in the world got together, agreed to keep everything confidential, and shared what they were learning about crime, risk, technique, and criminality. As a closed-door body bound to secrecy it is difficult to quantify its impact, but it assuredly was of major importance as it was revered by those who attended for all they could learn from their peers and to do so in a safe setting.

One thing Donn stressed to me in my interview with him is that in his research of interviewing computer crime convicts it rarely was someone who set out to be a computer criminal, but more often was someone with some level of computer skills and access who developed life problems, psychological problems, family problems, money problems, and turned to a crime they thought they could perpetrate and get away with, some did, many more were apprehended, arrested, and convicted.

Donn was a very religious and family focused man and a very principled person. He told me he and friend (IBM’s) William Murray made a pact that they would not appear on a  panel at events that featured former malicious hackers who gain notoriety and later traded their skills to put on a white hat. He saw that as indirectly benefiting from criminal activity earlier and it bothered him that it became increasingly common.

Donn also donated his incredible Papers, a wonderous archival collection that is unequaled as a resource to study computer crime of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It has been praised by many historians and has been very useful to their work. The Donn B. Parker Papers consist of five principal series: Donn B. Parker Talks and Writings, Professional Activities, Subject Files, SRI Computer Crime Case Files and Audio/Visual Materials. These series richly add to the field of computer and information crime and security, and his countless contributions.

We wish Donn’s wife Lorna and family and close friends all the best at this difficult time. Donn was a generous, personable, and deeply thoughtful person. He will be greatly missed.

Jeffrey R. Yost


Back to Bits & Bytes