Sunday, October 29, 2006

30 Years of Public Key

The Computer History Museum held a wonderful event celebrating 30 years of Public Key Cryptography last week. In a sense it did not matter that as the meeting unfolded we heard that the NSA may well have implemented the idea that was first invented at GCHQ in the UK during the 70's. The event celebrated the public invention of ideas that underlies secure use of the internet by Diffie and Hellman in 1986.

John Markoff introduced the event with Dan Boneh from Stanford and Voltage Security. Dan gave us a short overview that explained what Public Key Cryptography is in terms that even a layman could follow and impressed on us the importance of its discovery.

This led to the panel run by Steven Levy who basically took us through the his book Crypto, starting with the invention of Public Key Cryptography by panelists Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. The next part of the story was the commercialization of the ideas by RSA security represented by Jim Bidzos, and its first serious use in Lotus Notes by panelist Ray Ozzie. Ray took us to the moment where he needed to get an export license for Notes and ran into the roadblock of the government represented by Brian Snow who recently retired from the NSA.

The central discussion revolved around the position of the defense establishment who wanted to prevent what they saw as a weapon falling into the hands of the enemy and the business interests who needed the technology to make the internet secure for commerce. My big takeaway is the counter-culture character of Diffie and Hellman, particularly Whit Diffie. I get comfort from the fact that people like Diffie are working on my side to ensure that this technology is available for all of us and not just the guys in blue suits and dark glasses.

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