Cryptography Pioneers Diffie and Hellman Win ACM Turing Award

By John Russell

March 3, 2016

Two distinguished cryptography pioneers, Whitfield Diffie, former Chief Security Officer of Sun Microsystems and Martin E. Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, were awarded the 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award for critical contributions to modern cryptography this week. Diffie and Hellman’s invention of public-key cryptography and digital signatures revolutionized computer security and made Internet commerce possible.

“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,” said ACM President Alexander L. Wolf in announcing the award. “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.”

Martin Hellman
Martin Hellman

Their seminal paper, “New Directions in Cryptography,” Diffie and Hellman presented an algorithm that showed that asymmetric or public-key cryptography was possible. In Diffie and Hellman’s invention, a public key, which is not secret and can be freely distributed, is used for encryption, while a private key, that need never leave the receiving device, is used for decryption. This asymmetric cryptosystem is designed in such a way that the calculation of the private key from the public key is not feasible computationally, even though one uniquely determines the other.

The ACM Turing Award, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing,” carries a $1 million prize with financial support provided by Google, Inc. It is named for Alan M. Turing, the British mathematician who articulated the mathematical foundation and limits of computing and who was a key contributor to the Allied cryptoanalysis of the German Enigma cipher during World War II

“Public-key cryptography is fundamental for our industry,” said Andrei Broder, Google Distinguished Scientist. “The ability to protect private data rests on protocols for confirming an owner’s identity and for ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of communications. These widely used protocols were made possible through the ideas and methods pioneered by Diffie and Hellman.”

Link to the full announcement.

(Whitfield Diffie Headshot)
Credit: Rod Searcey / Stanford University

(Martin Hellman Headshot)
Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

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