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.