Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Center for International Security and Cooperation Stanford University

Diffie (center, brown blazer), stands with alumni of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. John McCarthy, a professor emeritus of computer science, (seated, blue jacket), is regarded as the ''father of artificial intelligence.''

December 9, 2009 - In the News

CISAC's scholars awarded for invention of public key cryptography

CISAC Visiting Scholar Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, and Ralph Merkle of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, have been awarded the 2010 Richard W. Hamming Medal by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

The annual award honors "exceptional contributions to information sciences, systems and technology." Diffie, a vice president, fellow and chief security officer at Sun Microsystems, and Hellman and Merkle were recognized "for the invention of public key cryptography and its application to secure communications." The medal will be presented June 26, 2010, in Montreal, Canada.

Diffie also was among the recipients of the new John McCarthy Awards for Excellence in Research and Research Environments presented during the first-ever reunion of more than 100 members of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) on Nov. 21-22. Established in 1966, the lab aimed to build a working artificial intelligence system.

Professor Emeritus McCarthy, regarded as the "father of artificial intelligence," attended the reunion on campus. He was frequently cited as a source of inspiration by the 20 SAIL alumni awarded with the honor bearing his name. Similar to the Hamming Medal, Diffie received the award for his work in cryptography. The citation states that he originated "the important idea of public key cryptography," which led to "the creation of practical public key encryption systems [that have] had major effects on protecting personal privacy, moving away from the idea that only governmental agencies have the right to encrypt and protect their records."

The New York Times reported on the reunion in an essay titled, Optimism as Artificial Intelligence Pioneers Reunite, which focused on some of the lab's inventions and its unorthodox culture. In another story related to the invention by Diffie, Hellman and Merkle, the School of Engineering reported:

Back in 1977, the nation was mad about "Saturday Night Fever," Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson, and ... Public Key Cryptography?

The revolutionary, Stanford-born advance in computer data security did indeed attract the attention of national media. Time magazine covered the invention and ran this November 1977 Stanford News Service photo (above) to illustrate the story.

In the picture (from left) are Ralph Merkle, Martin Hellman, and Whit Diffie. Merkle and Diffie were Hellman's students at Stanford at the time. The three are credited as the first to publish a PKC system, which allows people and businesses to share information over a public network without fear of eavesdropping along the way.

Hellman, now a professor emeritus of electrical engineering, shared this picture and unlocked its key secret: The printout has absolutely nothing to do with the research and the photo was thoroughly posed. "Our work was done mostly with paper and pencil, a programmable calculator, and a computer terminal, none of which made for high interest in a picture," Hellman said.

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