And the prestigious Nobel Prize in computer science goes to…
The pioneers of the most widely used encryption scheme on the Internet were honored recently with the most prestigious award in computer science. The winners – Whitfield Diffie, a former security officer at Sun Microsystems, and Martin E. Hellman, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University in California, received a 1 million dollar cash prize along with the A.M. Turing award for their contributions in computer science.
The A.M. Turing award was named after the brilliant British computer scientist Alan Turing, who pioneered (among other things) what is modern day cryptography to crack the German Enigma ciphers during the World War II. The award is often called the Nobel Prize in Computing.
Livescience has quoted Alexander Wolf, the President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) as saying:
“Today, the subject of encryption dominates the media, is viewed as a matter of national security, impacts government-private sector relations, and attracts billions of dollars in research and development. In 1976, Diffie and Hellman imagined a future where people would regularly communicate through electronic networks and be vulnerable to having their communications stolen or altered. Now, after nearly 40 years, we see that their forecasts were remarkably prescient.”
Cryptography basically allows two parties to communicate privately. If a third party tried to eavesdrop on this conversation, the breach would be detected. Cryptography has especially been of importance during times of war. Initially, cryptography started off as substituting one letter for another, eventually becoming more and more sophisticated. The growth in cryptography has resulted in more complex cryptographic systems being built, for example, the enciphering machines that were pivotal in World War II.
New Directions in Cryptography
Diffie and Hellman published the paper “New Directions in Cryptography” in 1976. They described a conceptual framework for an asymmetrical encryption scheme. It introduced what was considered a radically new method of distributing cryptographic keys, that went far toward solving one of the fundamental problems of cryptography, key distribution. The method has become known as the Diffie–Hellman key exchange.
In this system, a public, freely available key is used to encrypt messages, while a private key is used to decode messages. What’s interesting is that a private key is derived from a public key, yet you just can’t deduce one from the other. What is most amazing about this private-public key system? This system is the heart of the secure Web. Any website you see today that begins with “https,” uses this method called the Secure Transport Layer.
The widely used protocols used today were made possible through the ideas and the methods pioneered by Diffie and Hellman. Cryptography would not have been the same without them. Congratulations to them both.