How I Introduced the Cybersecurity World to a Cold War Hero

[Links and resources updated on October 4, 2022]

If you told me a year ago that I would meet a cold war hero at a birthday party, I wouldn’t have believed you. And I would be even more skeptical if you told me she would be an unintimidating, approachable music professor with an infectious smile.

The Birthday Party

It’s the summer of 2021. After more than a year without travel due to COVID, my wife, Kim, and I were excited to attend the birthday party of a close friend, and spend a few relaxing days in southern California. The party was held at our friend’s house and perfect weather allowed everyone to mingle both inside and outside. We only knew a few people at the party, so we worked the room, executing the often tricky game of remembering names and faces. Little did I know that one of those names would soon be emblazoned across countless cybersecurity blogs, podcasts, and the keynote stage at the RSA Conference.

After a few hours of socializing, dinner was served, and everyone found a place to sit. Kim and I met the new round of people at our table. One woman introduced herself as Merryl Goldberg, a music professor at the California State University San Marcos. We were all impressed to learn that Dr. Goldberg is not only a professor, but also an author and a boxer!

Kim and I introduced ourselves and explained that we “work in cybersecurity.” This is a pretty safe way to start that conversation since cybersecurity seems like a world of wizardry to so many people. As we talked to Merryl some more, I shared how a lot of cybersecurity professionals are also musicians. Musicians actually make very good technology professionals because they tend to be both creative and logical. Hearing about this crossover of tech and arts, Merryl said she has a fun story for us. Everyone at the table was wide-eyed as she explained how she invented an encryption code using musical notes on sheet music to get critical information past the KGB which helped people defect from the USSR in the 1980’s. I won’t tell her story here because much better writers have already done so. When you finish reading this blog, I encourage you to read the Wired article about Dr. Goldberg’s story. A link is at the end of this blog.

After we picked our jaws up off the floor, I asked Merryl if she would be willing to tell her story at a cybersecurity conference. With that infectious smile on her face, she said, “Sure!” At that point Kim and I said, “Merryl, we’re going to make you famous!”

Call For Speakers

Upon returning home, Kim and I began drafting a submission the RSA Conference’s Call for Speakers. With a draft in hand, and with Merry’s approval, we submitted the application and began the waiting game.

In early October, I received an email from Britta Glade, the RSA Conference’s Senior Director of Content and Curation. Britta was very excited to be introduced to Merryl and hear her story first-hand. At that time, the keynotes team seemed to have a few ideas around how to present this story but as Britta wrote in her email, “…trust me if we can pull off the current idea….it’ll rock 😊”

RSA Conference

News of when and how Merryl’s story would be told at the RSA Conference was delayed because the conference was rescheduled from February to June. When the plan and the schedule were solidified, Britta reached out to let me know and I immediately booked my travel San Francisco.

I arrived in San Francisco the day before Dr. Goldberg’s talk and met her for dinner. It was great to catch up in person. We were so excited to see that she had a big stage on which to tell her story. Being a life-long learner, she also had a lot of questions about the cybersecurity industry, and we continued our discussion about the similarities between technology and music.

The Presentation

Prior to Merryl’s presentation, I walked the vendor floor at the RSA Conference and got to meet Jen Easterly, the famous Director of the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. After taking the obligatory selfie with Jen, and securing a coveted autographed CISA Rubik’s cube, I told her about Dr. Goldberg’s story and invited her to watch the presentation. As it turned out, Jen was on the keynote stage just before Dr. Goldberg so they got to meet for a few minutes in the Green Room. Even though they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, at the conference, I understand Jen and Merryl are going to meet up again soon.

As I stood in line, waiting to enter the keynote room, I was impressed but not surprised by the number of people waiting to hear Merryl’s story. Once everyone was seated, the lights dimmed and Britta took the stage. She explained how, early in her career, she realized the strong relationship between music and programming and then introduced Dr. Goldberg. The interview-style presentation worked great. I won’t get into the meat of the presentation, but you’ll be able to see it in full, with a bit of live music at the end, when RSA Conference makes the video public.

After the talk.

After the talk, a group of people gathered in front of the stage to speak with Merryl and Britta. Among them were Bruce Schneier and Wired Magazine author, Lily Hay Newman. So many people were wowed by the story that the conversation quickly turned to how cool this would be as a movie or a TV series. After the crowd dispersed, Merryl invited me back to the green room with Britta and we caught up for a few minutes. I stepped happily into the role of not only cybersecurity tour guide, but also the soprano saxophone case carrier.

Merryl was not ready to call it a day. She wanted to learn more about the wonderful world of cybersecurity, so I took her on a quick tour of the enormous vendor floor. The IBM booth was a big hit. Their marketing team had put together a bit of a music mixing board to emphasize the need to not focus on everything at once. You just get noise an no music.

I also knew that the NSA booth had a working Enigma machine and considering the reason we were there, I thought it would be fun for Merryl to see it in person. After a cool demo from Spencer from the National Cryptologic Museum, I introduced Spencer to Dr. Goldberg and he was of course, very interested in her story. Maybe there will be a fun collaboration in the future.

The Buzz

Prior to the RSA Conference, Wired magazine’s Lily Hay Newman interviewed Dr. Goldberg. Lily released a great article on Wired’s website as Merryl took the stage at the RSA conference. Following Lily’s Wired article, the story has been told in a number of articles and podcasts; a running list is below. Dr. Goldberg is working on a book and she has been approached numerous times by other media outlets so stay tuned, there is likely more to come!


Wired – How a Saxophonist Tricked the KGB by Encrypting Secrets in Music June 8, 2022

RSA Conference 2022 Keynote – How a Musician Used Sheet Music Encryption to Help Soviet Defectors June 8, 2022

Dark Reading – How 4 Young Musicians Hacked Sheet Music to Help Fight the Cold War June 10, 2022

Tweet by CISAJen June 10, 2022

Hacked Podcast – The Phantom Orchestra June 16, 2022

[PODCAST] Smashing Security Podcast #279: Encrypted notes and a deadly case of AirTag syping June 16, 2022

SpamChronicles June 20, 2022

JACK article (French) June 22, 2022

[VIDEO] Dr. Goldberg’s RSA Conference presentation on YouTube August 12, 2022

[PODCAST] Click Here podcast: The Musicians Who Came In From The Cold August 23, 2022

[VIDEO] A Reunion Performance from the “Phantom West” August 23, 2022

[VIDEO] Evading the KGB with Sheet Music with Merryl Goldberg August 25, 2022

[PODCAST] NPR podcast and radio show, The World (starts at 23:40) August 29, 2022

[VIDEO PODCAST] Spying Through Music September 28, 2022

Other References

[VIDEO] Professor Packs a Punch: Beyond the Classroom with Merryl Goldberg April 19, 2018

Merryl Goldberg on Twitter

Merryl Goldberg, Ed.D Faculty Page at CSUSM

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