As encryption debate rages, inventors of public key encryption win prestigious Turing Award

Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman receive the ACM Turing Award and a $1 million prize

The inventors of public key cryptography have won the 2015 Turing Award, just as a contentious debate kicks off in Washington over how much protection encryption should really provide.

The Association for Computing Machinery announced Tuesday that Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman received the ACM Turing Award for their contributions to cryptography.

The two are credited with the invention of public key cryptography, which is widely used to scramble data so it can be sent securely between users and websites, and to protect information on devices like smartphones and computer hard drives.

“The ability for two parties to communicate privately over a secure channel is fundamental for billions of people around the world,” ACM said in a statement.

By coincidence or design, the award was announced at almost the exact moment that a hearing on encryption got under way in Washington, D.C., before the House Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers are hearing testimony on how they should balance the right to privacy with the needs of law enforcement to access encrypted data for national security reasons and to solve crimes.

Representatives from Apple and the FBI, who are battling in court over access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters, are testifying at the hearing.

Diffie was chief security officer at the former Sun Microsystems and Hellman is professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University. Their paper from 1976, “New Directions in Cryptography,” introduced the ideas of public-key cryptography and digital signatures, "the foundation for most regularly-used security protocols on the Internet today," the ACM noted.

In the system they invented, the public key is used to encrypt data, while the private key, which never leaves the receiving device, is used to decrypt it. The system is designed so that anyone who knows the public key can't calculate the private key, even though the two are linked.

The Turing Award is named for Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped crack the Enigma coding machine used by Germany in World War II, depicted in the film "The Imitation Game."

The award comes with a US$1 million prize. In a blog post Tuesday, Hellman said he would use his half of the money to further a project to curtail nuclear proliferation and conflict.

ACM didn't immediately reply to a question about the timing of the announcement. It also coincided with a panel at the RSA security show in San Francisco where Diffie and Hellman were speaking.

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