The Untold Story of the Man That Made Mainstream Encryption Possible

from One Zero

Bailey Whitfield Diffie, born June 5, 1944, was always an independent sort. As one early friend remarked, “The kid had an alternative lifestyle at age five.” Diffie didn’t read until he was 10 years old. There was no question of disability, he simply preferred that his parents read to him, which seemingly they did, quite patiently. Finally, in the fifth grade, Diffie spontaneously worked his way through a tome called The Space Cat, and immediately progressed to the Oz books.

Later that year his teacher at P.S. 178 — “Her name was Mary Collins and if she is still alive I’d like to find her,” Diffie would say decades later — spent an afternoon explaining something that would stick with him for a very long time: the basics of cryptography.

Diffie found cryptography a delightfully conspiratorial means of expression. Its users collaborate to keep secrets in a world of prying eyes. A sender attempts this by transforming a private message to an altered state, a sort of mystery language: encryption. Once the message is transformed into a cacophonous babble, potential eavesdroppers are foiled. Only those in possession of the rules of transformation can restore the disorder back to the harmony of the message as it was first inscribed: decryption. Those who don’t have that knowledge and try to decrypt messages without the secret “keys” are practicing “cryptanalysis.”

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3 Comments

  1. The creation of commercialized encryption was innovative and led the way for how electronic commerce is performed. Whit Diffie’s story was remarkable and he led the way for the advancements in cryptography. While at MIT, Whit was beginning to better understand the importance of digital security and the correlation to cryptography. To better understand cryptography, it is explained by a sender transforming a private message to an altered state and making it a sort of mystery language. This message can be sent and read by encryption and decryption. Whit Diffie and Martin Hellman were attempting to get away from the NSA secrecy and make the encryption structure commercialized.
    The article highlighted many intriguing points about the creation of mainstream encryption and how it got there. The NSA created the data encryption standard (DES), but was very limited for wide use, especially when attempting to communicate securely with someone you have not met. This was the critical point where Whit was able to create the public key which would be symmetrical and able to encrypt and decrypt messages. The breakthrough happened when Whit used one-way functions of mathematics to secure the message and make it private. Another important aspect of the public key crypto was the ability for it to be a true authenticating process which was a digital signature. The last piece of Mr. Diffie’s creation that was impressive was that it offered the nonrepudiation feature which in comparison is a notary public seal.
    This article was an informative and exciting read, which offered a better understanding of the encryption process and how it became relevant. The importance of security and privacy are highly touted, and this form of communication offers both. Beyond the need on a governmental and military level, the breakthrough into mainstream has paved the path to electronic commerce and secure communication for all. My understanding of secure communication was very limited, but the ability to comprehend the encryption process and structure has opened my eyes to security and privacy. Today, when hackers or eavesdroppers are very common, the importance of encrypted communication is critical. This form of safety has catapulted our technology industry and created better communication.

  2. Considering that certain fields of study and academic disciplines have been being cultivated for thousands of years, if one intends to make any significant contribution or advancement to a specific field it requires the utmost education and practice of that respective science. Such people who do so frequently have doctorates in their field and are celebrated by their peers, and rightly so. However, the article in references provides a different perspective on such matters. It states that polymaths are actually better disposed to learning and producing that and individual who specialized in a specific discipline. Of course, the word polymath conjures images in the mind of the geniuses of history, such as Aristotle or Leonardo Da Vinci. These men were geniuses and would probably qualify for the highest academic accolades in a variety of fields, even by modern standards. Success is certainly obtainable to men like them. Nonetheless, according to the article, genius is not necessarily a prerequisite for being a polymath. Limiting yourself to one type of science will make the mind accustomed to understanding forms of that science, but it will be less adaptable to others. For example, a lifelong linguist may master the grammar and paradigms of say Latin, and then will easily recognize these patterns in other romance languages and learn them all the easier. However, when they apply themselves to say, mathematics, they will be less malleable to its laws than a primary school student. Whereas a polymath from an early age will have better cognitive abilities than most because of the variety of learning they undertake to themselves, even if he or she cannot claim master over any individual subject or discipline. Such ability (and well-rounded education) will allow the polymath to ply their skills to a variety of career paths and will never want for job opportunities. Consequently, the future will be dominated by polymaths.

  3. Encryption is derived from the Ancient Greek word krypto, meaning “to conceal.” It involves changing words into a secret formulation of letters and symbols to hide the contents of a message, intended to be sent or read by someone who is also familiar with said formulation of symbols. Encryption and cryptography really flourished during the world wars as a means to encode vital radio messages. Upon the advent of peace, the art was not abandoned by the civilian sector, mostly adopted for private correspondence and messages regarding financial matters. When the internet became fully develop, it produced complex systems of encoding and decrypting messages. Which is where Whit Diffie steps on to the scene. His proclivity to cryptography from an early age, perhaps along with some natural intelligence and association with equally intelligent people allowed him to capitalize his crypto skills on the market. Diffie and Diffie and MIT professor Mark Hellmann joined forces to create a series of algorithms that would become the basis for modern cryptography. With the majority of business affairs and transactions beginning to be undertaken online, we have also experienced an increase in hacker and other electronic criminals. This makes electronic finances (which is everything from individual banking to securities exchanges on Wall Street) infinitely riskier, and the need for electronic cryptography essential for most fiscal affairs to be executed. I am of the opinion that the work of Whit Diffie and his immediate colleagues has been some of the most important and groundbreaking achievements of the last century.

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