Last week, the Association for Computing Machinery named Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman recipients of the 2015 Turing Award. They have been honored with this prestigious award for their work in public-key cryptography and digital signatures. The two computer scientists have given the public the ability to use encrypted software to communicate in a private manner and enabled a way to verify a person’s digital identity. Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin protocol also borrows from Diffie and Hellman’s work and is a significant foundation to the network’s operations.
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Diffie Hellman Helped Pave The Way For Bitcoin
Whitfield Diffie, former Chief Security Officer of Sun Microsystems, and Martin E. Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University released a paper in 1976 that has changed the computer science world forever. Diffie and Hellman’s “New Directions in Cryptography,” has provided the most popular form of privacy and security methods used on the internet.
Every day Businesses, governments, software manufacturers, email providers, and a vast array of organizations use the encryption to secure connections. ACM President Alexander L. Wolf said in a statement to press:
“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. — 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.”
The award is well-known and often thought of as the “nobel prize of computer science” and is named after Alan M. Turing, the British mathematician who defined many of the mathematical properties and limits of computing. Turing worked with the Allies during World War II and provided help with the German Enigma cipher. The Turing Award this year comes with a $1 million USD prize and financial support from Google.
The paper “New Directions in Cryptography,” introduced an algorithm that enabled the use of asymmetric cryptography. The world would soon meet Alice and Bob and learn how public keys and private keys were swapped during the encryption/decryption processes. Individuals would then discover how to authenticate their transmissions with digital signatures using the cryptographic variant. Because written signatures can be manipulated and forged, the digital form had been found to be superior. The use-cases coming from Diffie and Hellman’s ideas were so immense it changed the entire landscape of computing.
With Bitcoin, there are several types of cryptography used within the protocol’s network. Public key cryptography is used to send and receive the digital currency. Private keys sign the transactions and broadcast this information to the entire system. These signatures verify who owns the bitcoins and the authentication of incoming and outgoing transactions. Diffie and Hellman’s paper has influenced the platform a great deal and is an essential part of its cryptographic anatomy.
Users all around the world utilize Diffie and Hellman’s techniques, some without even knowing. For instance, online secure URL’s are called “https” and use public key cryptography within its Secure Transport Layer protocol.
The work these two men have given to the world is priceless and has established cryptography within many facets of computer technology. Satoshi’s design and many decentralized, peer-to-peer, and open source projects owe Diffie and Hellman a great deal of gratitude for the science they unleashed.
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Images courtesy of ACM, Wiki Commons, and Crypto-graphics.com