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Unix Insider: The opening of secrets - Steven Levy recounts the history of public key cryptography

Mar 11, 2001, 15:42 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Bill Rosenblatt)

"Crypto shows us cryptography's 30-year journey from the secret world of the National Security Agency (NSA) to the world at large. The journey begins in the early 1970s with Whitfield Diffie, a misfit MIT student who felt the need to keep his private information secret and went on a quixotic search for technology that would let him do so. His search took him across the country to Stanford, where he met math professor Martin Hellman."

"Levy is careful to emphasize just how revolutionary public key encryption was. The very idea that ordinary citizens could protect their information and send it over a network gave the intelligence and law enforcement communities the heebie-jeebies. The CIA intercepted communications to sniff out terrorists and steal secrets from the Soviets, and the FBI did so to track down drug dealers and child pornographers. Giving everyday people the ability to keep their communications secret would be like taking away the agencies' ability to bug and wiretap. Scandalous."

"If the NSA had its way, private citizens would not be allowed to use cryptography. But in the 1960s, researchers from IBM developed an algorithm to give the technology to the company's many corporate customers. The NSA tried to stifle IBM's invention. After much negotiation, IBM agreed to relinquish control of the technology to the NSA in exchange for financial consideration and the agency's imprimatur. The result was the Data Encryption Standard (DES), which IBM and others began to build into their products."

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