Often described as the Nobel Prize of computing, the Turing Award is a million-dollar recognition of significant contributions to the sum of human technical knowledge. As reported by the The New York Times, this year's Award — fittingly announced during the 2016 RSA conference — went to security pioneers Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman, the creators of public-key cryptology. The honor is both well-deserved and socially relevant, given the current struggle between government agencies and private industry to balance national safety and personal privacy.
More importantly, the win highlights the cultural impact of this ever-evolving discipline.
The road to public-key cryptography started in 1970 with Stanford AI researcher John McCarthy's paper about a "home information terminal." Diffie, also a Stanford researcher, read McCarthy's paper and started wondering about the concept of digital "signatures." He paired up with Hellman, an electrical engineer, and in 1976 debuted the concept of public-key cryptology.
It's a beautifully simple idea: Every user gets two keys, one public and one private. While it is possible for anyone to encrypt a message with a user's public key, only the intended recipient can decrypt it with their private key. Initially the work was a little more than proof-of-concept, but 20 years later formed the backbone of the commercial World Wide Web. It is now used to protect all manner of electronic communication. In other words, the Turing Award win only makes sense; without Diffie and Hellman, cryptology would be fundamentally lame.
What's most interesting about the Turing win, however, isn't that it took so long for Hellman and Diffie to end up on the docket; it's the ongoing cultural discourse surrounding encryption and crypto technologies. For example, cryptology as an industry was nonexistent until the late 1970s when scientists got their hands on previously classified military technology. But even the development of publicly available crypto offerings hasn't eased the friction between government agencies and innovators. Consider the current fight between Apple and the FBI: The iPhone maker says users are entitled to strong encryption without government backdoor access, whereas federal law-enforcement suggests privacy doesn't trump national security.
So far, Apple is out in front — in a letter to the Honorable Sheri Pym, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye argues that "secure communications are fundamental to the exercise of freedom."
A New Approach?
Beyond heated discussion, the work of Diffie and Hellman has also led to new avenues of crypto development — quantum key distribution (QKD), in particular. As noted by Popular Science, this kind of cryptography "draws its strength from the weirdness of reality at small scales." Put simply, it's now possible to "encode" messages on light particles that require hackers to make pretty-darn-accurate measurements if they want to crack the key. But the very act of measurement alerts particle behavior and introduces errors, alerting senders that someone has compromised their code. Some QKD systems rely on "entanglement," which allows two particles to behave as one regardless of their physical distance. Encode them both, send one off and if a hacker attempts access — even across the planet — the other instantly reacts.
This is the true value of Hellman and Diffie's win. While public-key systems are critical to current tech infrastructure, the pair's cultural contributions — the move toward crypto as something universal and publicly accessible — not only influences politics but has helped set the stage for a new, potentially ironclad system of data defense.