Until 1976, cryptography was primarily the domain of the NSA. This agency’s mandate was – and is – to protect American secrets and stay ahead of the technology curve of foes (and friends) who want to snoop on us. From the NSA’s, perspective, cryptography is a weapon.
But in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, distrust of government was at an all-time high, and a maverick named Whitfield Diffie, or Whit for short, decided that the NSA should not have a monopoly on crypto.Turned on to the subject of crypto by a Stanford computer scientist named John McCarthy, Whit quickly discovered that the academic literature offered little information. The best secrets remained firmly behind the NSA’s triple fence. So Whit launched a mission to uncover any information about crypto he could find, digging into libraries and knocking on the doors of anyone who would talk to him.
Eventually Whit wound up at the doorstep of Marty Hellman, also a Stanford professor. Whit and Marty hit it off immediately. The two men shared the conviction that privacy was important, and they set about developing different encryption schemes. Despite (or perhaps, because of) some run-ins with the NSA along the way, they eventually started attracting attention from other academics. Before too long, an academic crypotgraphy community emerged.
In 1976, Whit and Marty, along with computer scientist Ralph Merkle, developed a technology called public key encryption. It is believed, though it’s never been proven, that public key crypto already existed at the NSA. But by creating an academic discipline and publishing their findings, the trio freed crypto from the triple fence.
This technological achievement is impressive, but what’s even more important is that they stood up to power in the name of privacy...and they won.
Obviously the context today is very different. While we may never know the full extent of the government’s snooping capabilities, we do know from the Snowden revelations that the government is willing and able to piggyback on technologies like smartphones and social media, and scoop up personal information from innocent citizens. So in many ways today’s privacy debate begins by examining our relationship to tech companies, which increasingly function as intermediaries between us and the government at all levels. When we sign the terms of service on user agreements, we willingly hand over our information, which makes the whole issue of data and privacy significantly more complicated.
On the other hand, Whit and Marty’s story demonstrates that when people stand up to power – whether corporate, government, or otherwise – change is possible. We are not powerless. This is worth remembering as we debate the prospect of living in a “post-privacy” world.
Michal Kosinski, Whit Diffie, Marty Hellman, Henry Corrigan-Gibbs