MOSCOW – Twenty-nine years ago, instructional media services researchers at the University of Idaho received an eerie phone call.
On the other line was an intermediary from the National Security Agency whose voice was synthesized through the use of a keyboard to produce speech. The man needed the team’s help. He had data files that needed to be encrypted and protected for an undisclosed end user.
The cutting-edge team, a leader in the field of imaging, agreed to take on the project that had a tight deadline of just a few days.
About six months after their work was complete, the team learned the mystery customers were Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and then-President George H.W. Bush.
It’s a memory that was recently unearthed with the news that Bush, the 41st president, died Nov. 30, said Kevin Carson, who at the time was the computer graphics services manager at UI.
“The element of mystery was foremost at that point in time,” Carson said. “He was the president and commander in chief, and I think we all thought it was a very solemn thing. We went on with our lives, and didn’t think about it again until just a few days ago.”
The team was charged with essentially encrypting the files to safely transfer to medical professionals for what was believed to be a surgical procedure performed on Bush. Carson enhanced the images and applied a color lookup table to highlight certain features for the surgical team.
The exact procedure Bush underwent is hard to pinpoint.
“It’s still a bit of a mystery to me today,” Carson said. “I believe had he had anesthesia, he would have had his vice president be active, and there is no record of that. I suspect it was a minor procedure that did not require him to go under, but that is only speculation.”
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – otherwise known as HIPAA – was still several years out. The act protects medical and health information.
It seemed apparent the information needed to remain confidential at the time, Carson said. He was employed at UI from 1985 to 1995. He now works at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman.
He recalled the experience earlier this week and recalled going into the office of coworker Kirk Kelly almost 30 years ago. At the time, Kelly was the media center manager at UI.
“He looked agitated. I couldn’t tell if he was excited or upset,” Carson said.
The referral for the intermediary came from a technical representative in New York City with the AGFA Corp., a European film manufacturer similar to Kodak. He recommended UI as the institution to perform image processing in a format the National Security Administration could output using its equipment. The information would then be transmitted to a third party.
Tony Opheim, the deputy chief information officer and associate vice president of infrastructure at Washington State University, was an undergraduate student at UI back then. He worked on the project with the rest of the team under the leadership of Harvey Hughett, who was the director of the Division of Instructional Media Services. Hughett later became UI’s chief information officer. Opheim’s role focused on cryptographic security.
Opheim said the team often dealt with projects where information was restricted, but this one was unusual because there was no name associated to it.
“This was one of the many times we got this problem and were told to figure it out,” Opheim said. “Computers and imaging back then was really hard and difficult. Half of the time we didn’t know what we were looking at. But with this, we had no clue whatsoever and all thought it was a little bit odd that there was such a level of secrecy.”
Opheim became a full-time staff member at UI in 1991, and he remained there until 2012, when he was employed at WSU.
“It was a humbling experience,” Opheim said of the project. “It made us feel proud we were contributing to something bigger than the basic day-to-day stuff.”
The group of four who worked on the project remain in touch, Carson said.
Kelly is now the chief information officer at Portland State University, while Hughett retired from UI in 2010.
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