A fascinating interview with Ralph Merkle. Merkle invented what we now call public-key cryptography — the ability for two users to communicate securely over an insecure channel. He says he came up with the idea after attempting to prove it was impossible. “Once I realized the problem was in fact soluble, at least that it was clear that there was no proof that it was insoluble, things fell into place fairly quickly.” Amazing.

He was pointed towards Diffie and Hellman and rejected from the ACM for not having any citations. “So I was not citing the prior literature on public key cryptography which, of course, did not exist.” The referree completely misunderstood the paper. “So I think basically what happened is: my paper was rejected until the concepts were made popular, and then the referee clearly heard about the concept somewhere else and then decided: ‘Okay, seeing as how I already know the concepts, I can now announce that this paper is a fine paper.’ So, by the by, I am a supporter of the Web. I think the World-wide Web is a fine idea. And self-publication electronically is splendid, and lets you by-pass all of this nonsense.”

Meanwhile, there’s an interview with Whitfield Diffie in which he says that PKC came about while thinking of how to encrypt telephone conversations. “We didn’t take ourselves lightly, if we were interested, our thinking about something was important.” When he heard about the paperless office, he wondered about how people would sign documents — thus, digital signatures. When he heard that Merkle was thinking about the problem, he got more interested. “I was very strongly influenced by [the do-it-yourself approach of the hackers at MIT] and that was very big in the Artificial Intelligence Lab.”

He also mentions The First Ten Years of Public-Key Cryptography — I’ll have to look for that.

posted May 19, 2002 12:29 PM (Technology) #


Emerging Technologies - Day 3
Emergent Hindsight
MarkM and AaronSw
The Secret alife of Webloggers
Crypto History
The Lawyers Strike Back
Point-Headed Academics vs. Pointy-Haired Bosses
Problems with MakeAShorterLink
New Hacks

Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)