The 2015 A.M. Turing Award was offered to consulting scholar Whitfield Diffie from the Canter for International Security and Cooperation from Stanford, and electrical engineering professor emeritus Martin Hellman, also the former Chief Security Officer at Sun Microsystems. Their contributions in cryptography have tremendously helped virtual security, as many modern security protocols are based on the Diffie-Hellman protocol.
The A.M. Turing Award is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of computing. Named after British computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turin, the prize also includes $1 million since 2014. Diffie and Hellman are both mentors on pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellows and are affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
The duo wrote a remarkable paper back in 1976, titled “New Directions in Cryptography”, which introduced digital signatures and public-key cryptography, the basis for modern virtual security.
Digital signatures are linked to the message one user sends and are meant to let others know if the message was not written by the person who claims to have done so. If only one word is changed in the message, the digital signature becomes invalid. The feature has an important role in e-commerce, banking and Apple software.
Public-key cryptography gives two parties the capability of communicating in an open channel without compromising the information they share. Third parties are thus impeded from eavesdropping.
Protection on the Internet based on the Diffie-Hellman protocol is still active today, through the “https” form which basically served for establishing a Secure Transport Layer. This is particularly useful for financial transactions and communications.
Back in 1976, almost all research on cryptography was conducted by NSA, so when Diffie and Hellman’s paper came out, the National Security Agency made efforts to limit the publication and distribution of their work. Since the duo challenged the monopoly of the NSA in cryptography, the clash resulted in the “crypto wars”. In the end, “New Directions in Cryptography” was largely published in spite of the efforts of the NSA.
In the recent controversy about encryption between Apple and the FBI, both Diffie and Hellman have sided with the major technology company. Even though they believe that creating a backdoor specifically for the smartphone of the San Bernardino shooter is not harmful, this might set future similar requests or even chill free speech.
Cryptography would be just one page in the encyclopedia of technology if not for the remarkable work of Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman.
Image Source: Heise Online