Skip to Content

Two Cryptographers Win Turing Prize in the Midst of Apple’s Fight with FBI

The announcement of the “Nobel Prize of computing” comes as the federal government is embroiled in a massive fight over the limits of encryption.
March 2, 2016

It may be no coincidence that the two winners of this year’s Turing Award did much to shape one of the most controversial questions of our time: whether the government has the right to unlock our digital secrets. The $1 million award announced on Tuesday is awarded by the Association for Computing Machinery, and often dubbed the Nobel Prize of computing.

Most likely, Apple wouldn’t be battling the FBI over iPhone security had Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie not figured out a way for two parties to communicate securely over insecure digital networks using pairs of so-called public and private cryptographic keys. And Diffie, in particular, has long been an outspoken advocate of an individual’s right to privacy in the face of government surveillance demands. So the timing is nothing if not auspicious in light of the Apple-FBI spat.

Hellman and Diffie discovered an ingenious mathematical algorithm that makes it possible to encrypt a message using a person’s public key together with your own private key so that it can be unlocked using that person’s private key and your public one. But any eavesdropper cannot practically unlock the message using the public keys alone.

A British cryptographer, James Ellis, may have separately invented public-key cryptography several years before Hellman and Diffie. However, since Ellis worked for the British code-breaking agency GCHQ at the time, his efforts—somewhat ironically—remained secret for many years.

(Read more: "DoJ to Apple: Unlocking the iPhone Won't Set a Legal Precedent," "In Apple vs. the FBI, There Is No Technical Middle Ground," "Apple's 'Code = Speech' Mistake")

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.