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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Jeffrey Hunker: A Personal Memory

My friend and colleague, Jeffrey Hunker, passed away Friday. This was unexpected, and stunning.

Jeffrey in a dark shirt at NSPW 2009, in Oxford, England.

What follows is not an obituary; others can write about the minutiae of his life, and of his many accomplishments, better than I. These are simply some of my memories.

I met Jeffrey some time in the 1990s, at (I believe) a workshop on incident response. Alan Paller, a mutual friend, introduced us. At the time, Jeffrey was the director of the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office (the CIAO), and if memory serves me correctly also on the National Security Council. (I may be off on the dates — he was on the NSC, but it may have been after the meeting.)

Jeffrey struck me as very friendly and willing to discuss various aspects of security. He gave a good talk at the workshop.

We reconnected in the mid-2000s, at a meeting for the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P); he was the representative for Carnegie-Mellon, and I for UC Davis. Our interests complemented each others’. Jeffrey knew quite a bit about technology, and far more about politics, how governments worked and interacted with one another, and about national security — topics I was very interested in. I knew a lot about the technology he was interested in, and I was learning about the other aspects he was an expert in. So we became friends, and colleagues.

Jeffrey was very good-natured, and seemed to be constantly amused at life. He was a joy to work with; he was very perceptive, and could get to the heart of an issue very quickly. He also asked questions that caused us to look at something in a new way. Talking to him was usually exciting, and I looked forward to it.

Our work on attribution sprang from a workshop on the Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) project, held in Davis. He was one of the attendees, and joined several others to come to my house for a small get-together; then we all went to dinner. He was charming to my wife Holly, and she immediately liked him.

That workshop also produced the only time I ever saw him irritated with me. He, another friend and colleague, and I were discussing attribution, and we decided to meet at 8am, before the workshop workday, to consider some ideas. Well, I overslept, and our friend was also late — and Jeffrey had been up since 6am working on the ideas. He quickly forgave us, though.

The work wound up in a paper on what attribution requirements the future Internet might require. His political expertise combined with our technical expertise to develop what I thought were interesting (and somewhat unexpected) results. We chose a rather impish title for the paper: “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Packets”. It was great fun to see him handle the questions about the title at the workshop — he ended up suggesting that the questioners ask any parent of a teenage girl!

Since then, Jeffrey and I worked together on topics ranging from attribution to the insider problem. Indeed, when he passed away, we had just completed a short write-up on whether the Internet could be controlled, and we were sending it around to see if we could get funding to explore that issue in more depth.

Jeffrey could take a complex political and governance issue and explain it in very simple terms. His book, Creeping Failure: How We Broke the Internet and What We Can Do to Fix It, did a nice job of explaining how we wound up with the Internet we have today, and how the problems arose and were magnified during its growth. His comparison of this to the evolution of cities was quite enlightening, and one I’d never heard of before.

He also enjoyed talking about books and history. I remember when we were at a workshop in New Hampshire. I was telling him about a book I was reading (The Illuminatus! Trilogy), and he seemed to enjoy the idea behind the book; I recommended it very highly. The same happened a couple of years later, when we were talking about counterfactual history. I told him about another book, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, which is an alternate history of Columbus' voyage. I hope he did read them; he would have enjoyed them very much.

I remember him being the general chair of the Workshop on Governance of Technology, Information, and Policies (GTIP) held in 2009. There were problems with the organization of the workshop, through no fault of anyone in particular. What they were are not relevant, but what is relevant is how Jeffrey adapted to the problems and out of them moulded a very successful workshop. His vision and skill in working with people, and his determination, made the workshop successful.

I spoke with Jeffrey on the Wednesday before he died; he told me he had been in the hospital for some time, which was why he was so hard to get hold of, but he thought he was getting better. But he wasn’t sure, and was still very, very tired. So we talked a bit, made plans to finish up a project we were working on, and agreed to talk on Thursday. I called at the prearranged time, and he told me he needed to rest, so could we talk on Friday? Of course, I said; and called him then. He didn’t answer. He never will.

There is an expression we use when we talk about people who are very, very good deep inside; we say they have a good soul. He had a good soul. My life was much richer for knowing Jeffrey — both professionally and, more importantly, personally. I will miss him very much.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Matt Bishop. Mike Vargo shared this with me today. Jeffrey was our neighbor. It is wonderful to read your anecdotes about your professional relationship with him. Your last paragraph really hit the mark. Donna Kell 07.16.13

  2. Thanks Matt. I'll post this on Jeffrey's Facebook high school class page.

  3. Thanks for the great post about Jeffrey. I just heard that new this evening from a friend and I was shocked. I often saw him walking at CMU campus but I only spoke to him once at the art gallery near his home. We chatted about art and research. Yes, he had a good soul, a gentleman we don't see often these days. I will miss him.

  4. Dr. Bishop, I hardly read a newspaper that doesn't show me how much work our nation needs done, so suitable to Jeffrey's mind and hand. For his sake, since you clearly understood this man's worth, I hope your own work does him proud. Onward, through the fog!

  5. Dear Dr. Bishop,
    Thanks for these lines. I was not as fortunate as you to really meet and speak with Dr. Hunker. But God used him to connect me to my now dear friends Don & Beth in Pittsburgh. I "met" him on a Saturday of August 2008 3 days after my arrival in Pittsburgh (straught from my Republic of Benin home country)for my master degree in public administration at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. I was out trying to find a place where there was a garage sale to buy furniture. Somebody called me and asked for help to lift up a man who was laying on the roadside almost unconscious. He was able to tell us his name and address, which was not too far. We walked him to his house and laid him in his bed. That eas in Squirrel Hill. The man I helped walk Dr. Hunker and who became my friend googled his name later and found out who Dr. Hunker was... After that Dr Hunker, myself and my frien Don and his wife Beth moved to the same neighborhood, without coordinating it. I tried to reach out to Dr. Hunker but never succeeded. I brought a Christmas greeting card to his door on December 24th, 2009 and knocked. But nobody replied. I was intrigued by Dr. Hunker and expected to have the opportunity to discuss with him about Internet security of which he seemed to be an expert...
    I left the US in May 2010, but would google his name from time to time. That's how I knew about the publication of his book "Creeping Failure" while I was in Central African Republic. At that point I drafted an email I intended to send him, which explained how I met him and have been following him. I never sent the email because I was a bit affraid how he would have reacted to an email from a stranger...
    I received an email from my friends Don & Beth recently informing me of his death. I felt sad, but I also felt God used him to connect me to my friends Don & Beth who literally adopted me as their African boy. They sent me a link to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which I read and which helped me understand better whom Dr. Hunker was and what happened to him.
    Today, I was still googling his name and that's how I came accross this blog page. I could not miss this opportunity to say a few word about my encounter with him and how somehow I became attached to him.

    I really hope that Dr. Hunker found peace before leaving this earth... And may he rest in peace!

    Dr. Bishop, if you don't mind I would like to get in touch with you if possible. My email address is and I currently live in Benin in west Africa.

    Joachim Boko