The Turing Award Honors Two Cryptography Pioneers

Mathew Sayer In the News

Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman have won the 2015 Turing Award. They’re being acknowledged for their 1976 paper “New Directions in Cryptography” which lived up to the name and did introduce a new direction; one that we’re still following today.

The Diffie-Hellman key exchange allowed the secure exchange of keys without using a physical channel; think courier or carrier pigeon. Diffie-Hellman is still used but there are suggestions that it cannot withstand the power of state actors anymore.

Public-key cryptography is a way of scrambling data so that it can only be read by two parties. Each person has a set of keys- one public and one private. If you have someone’s public key from a key database or even a Twitter bio, you can encrypt data so that it can only be decrypted with their private key.

In 1976, the year that Diffie and Hellman’s paper were published, the prize was won by Allen Newell and Herbert Simon for their work on artificial intelligence at RAND and Carnegie Mellon University. There is some irony that Diffie and Hellman have received the award at a time when the permutations of artificial intelligence, i.e. Big Data, is truly coming into its own as part the surveillant-capitalist ecosystem.

The Turing Award

The Turing Award is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. In 2014 Google upped the prize money to $1 million dollars, making it financially equitable. Both winners are longtime political activists. Martin Hellman has been focused on the threat of nuclear weapons and plans to use his share of the prize money to continue his work in this field. Whitfield Diffie is an advocate for personal privacy and intends to document the history of cryptography. If you’re interested in such a history John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry is a worthwhile read.