Old news, but the Snowden revelations might have some bearing on the matter… I wrote this as a speculative piece in 2010. For background click here:
For those who do not know, Gareth Williams was the GCHQ mathematician and cryptanalyst seconded to SIS who was found dead in a bag in a bath at his flat. The inquest has just concluded with the coroner saying that he was “probably unlawfully killed”. Naturally there has been a lot of speculation over who and why. However, looking at the case logically narrows the possibilities considerably.
First, we can rule out wild notions of foreign hit men killing him in revenge for merely doing his job. Anything he knew SIS would also certainly know, so it would do them no good. Besides, how do organized crime or hostile foreign intelligence services know which minor functionary does what at GCHQ? Second, I think we can rule out the disinformation about him being some kind of bondage masochist with a fetish for women’s clothes. Third, we can probably rule out the notion that he was a traitor, or about to take up some position in (say) China. Such people get prosecuted and imprisoned for that, not murdered by their employers.
The prime suspects would appear to be SIS or American intelligence services, given his connection with the NSA. Still unanswered is the question of what he might know that was so important that even a trial was too risky. It had to be something not merely so sensitive, but so believable (or checkable by third parties) that a single short statement from him would cause massive damage. Something that even uttered in court, or in front of his guards, would be an unacceptable risk.
There is also the triggering event for this murder, which may lie with claims of his imminent resignation and the possibly of a position with a startup in the USA connected to the financial sector. Exactly what this may have been remains unclear. Even so in the real world, as opposed to the movies, spies are allowed to leave and start new careers. They understand that they have to keep quiet about the details of their past life. There is however a gray area, where a former employee seeks to use secret information for their own advantage without necessarily disclosing it to third parties.
So, what kind of knowledge might a mathematician and expert in cryptography have that could be summed up in a sentence, which he could use in a hi tech startup, and which would justify his murder?
In the past there have been one or two such secrets, most notably during WW2 with the cracking of the Enigma codes. However, there is one such possibility in the modern world which looms large, and which experts know will happen sooner or later. In a single short sentence: “AES/RSA has been cracked”.
Both AES and RSA are encryption technologies in common use in eCommerce, online banking, diplomatic transmissions and the military up to Top Secret. Brute force computation, using existing computer archtectures, cannot break them either now or in the foreseeable future if the encoding numbers are big enough. However, there are two possible ways in which these might be broken. The first is a breakthrough in an understanding of the mathematics of prime numbers that would provide a pencil and paper analytical solution. Most mathematicians do not believe this is likely or even at all possible in the case of RSA, but AES is another matter. The other method of breaking the codes would be to brute force them using a Quantum Computer which, if such existed, would be ideal for the job. The thing is, officially, no quantum computer yet exists that can manage the job although a company called D-Wave claims to have a machine that on paper might do it. There are certainly rumours of the NSA and quantum computing circulating in the technical underground.
As for why such a secret would justify murder…
If one had a machine capable of breaking the codes the world’s financial system would be laid bare to both scrutiny and manipulation. It could even be destroyed within days if used in a hostile manner.
So, why was Gareth killed? Perhaps because he saw an opportunity to work on what will have to replace AES/RSA when the secret is out. Perhaps because his employers could not trust him not to use the information for his own purposes, especially when it came to raising capital for the venture. The global financial system depending on one man keeping quiet, when he clearly intended to use the information, may have been an unacceptable risk.
Speculation? Yes, but if AES/RSA has not been broken today it will be tomorrow.
Finally, it’s one thing for me to say “AES/RSA is broken” and quite another for a GCHQ insider to say it. Blind panic in the financial world would be an understatement of the reaction to such news. A similar panic would grip many governments across the world as all their old, supposedly secure, communications residing in the NSA and GCHQ archives became available for easy reading by both friend and foe.
Maybe that’s why Snowden is still alive – he has one monstrous revelation in the event of his “accidental” death or “bizarre suicide”. This is especially interesting because one of his revelations was that the NSA deliberately weakened Net encryption standards – presumably so that they could break them.