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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