Hellman and two of his graduate students inducted into National Cyber Security Hall of Fame

Martin Hellman
Martin Hellman and two of his graduate students have been elected to the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame.

The Stanford professor and two graduate students who invented public-key encryption are three of 11 inaugural inductees in the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame. In 1977, MARTIN HELLMAN, now a professor emeritus of electrical engineering, and two of his graduate students, WHITFIELD DIFFIE and RALPH MERKLE, introduced the encryption tool that today safeguards many trillions of dollars worth of online financial transactions every day.

“It’s a great honor,” Hellman said. “I’m really pleased that this great work – which almost everyone discouraged me against pursuing – has worked out this way.”

Colleagues discouraged the team’s pursuit because it was going up against the National Security Agency, which many suspected might classify the work. Indeed, this was a worry right up until the group presented its work: Although, the encryption software was written to make online banking communications more secure, there was concern that it could also be used by criminals and foreign adversaries to protect their messages from law enforcement and national intelligence.

Public-key cryptography protects information sent from one user to another – individuals or institutions – using a pair of numeric keys that undo one another. The sender first enciphers his message using the intended recipient’s public key (accessible by everyone), and the recipient uses his secret key (known only to him) to decipher and access the information. (For more details on the encryption process and the history of the work, click here.)

The three were selected from more than 200 nominations and will be enshrined along with eight other inductees at a black-tie gala at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore on Oct. 17. The Hall of Fame will eventually be located on the first floor of the World Trade Center in Baltimore, Md., where inductees will be featured in interactive video displays.

Hellman now focuses on the risks associated with nuclear arms proliferation and, on Oct. 18, will be presenting his findings to the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

Read more about the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame.