Last week I arrived in San Francisco to hear good news: Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman had won the ACM A.M. Turing Award. This is the Nobel Prize of computer science, with a million-dollar check and priceless prestige. The choice of these 2016 honorees is both long overdue and appropriately timely. Overdue because their contribution to the field (and to the world) was public key cryptography, which they created in 1976. And timely because the consequences of their invention?—?which would lead to the development of online privacy tools, whether the government liked it or not?—?are once again a flash point of Constitutional proportions.
The announcement of the award came at the massive annual RSA Conference. The gathering itself is a symbol of the growth of encryption in the public sector. The conference began in 1991, as a small gathering of a few dozen scientists and businesspeople. At the time, cryptography was only beginning to come out of a long period in the shadows. For decades, crypto had been considered a taboo topic of discussion, so deep into classified territory that when academics wrote papers with cryptographic implications, the government would quickly classify those documents, banning access even to their authors. Open statements almost never came from the National Security Agency (its name was seldom uttered, even in Congress), and its directors avoided public appearances with a zeal that made Howard Hughes look like Donald Trump.