In 1976, Martin E. Hellman and Whitfield Diffie created public-key cryptography—and with it transformed the world of digital security. Now, they’ve been honored with the 2016 Turing Award, often considered to be the computing equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The announcement was made at the RSA Conference, an international gathering of computing experts currently taking place in San Francisco, reports the New York Times.
Hellman and Diffie began working together in the 70s, ultimately publishing the paper “New Directions in Cryptography” in 1976. It’s reasonable to say that it was the birth of modern cryptography, providing for the first time a way for people to send sensitive information privately across an open network, with no arrangements made by either sender or recipient.
You probably know by now how it works. Public-key cryptography requires every user to have a pair of keys: One is made publicly available, the other is known only by the user. A message can be encrypted using the publicly available key, yet only decrypted using the private key.
Cory Doctorow gives a wonderfully neat description of how public-key cryptography works in his novel Little Brother. Here’s an extract:
[I]nstead of just encrypting the message with your private key, you *also* encrypt it with your boss’s public key. Now it’s been locked twice. The first lock — the boss’s public key — only comes off when combined with your boss’s private key. The second lock — your private key — only comes off with your public key. When your bosses receive the message, they unlock it with both keys and now they know for sure that: a) you wrote it and b) only they can read it.
It’s a poignant moment for the pair to receive the award. Hellman and Diffie clashed with the NSA during the development of their protocols—and now the FBI is embroiled in a fight with Apple over encryption, a scrap that could have impacts for all of us.