Programmers Whitfield Diffie and Martin E. Hellman, who developed the first form of cryptography for the internet era, have been awarded this year's Turing Award. Named after famed British mathematician Alan Turing, the award is a $1 million cash prize sponsored by Google that's given to scientists and engineers who advance the field of computing.
Diffie and Hellman developed the first instance of public-key cryptography
Diffie and Hellman are being honored for developing the first instance of public-key cryptography back in the 1970s. Called the Diffie–Hellman key exchange, the protocol established a way to send encrypted messages over public channels. The exchange was the first to split encryption into a public key for encrypting and a private key for decrypting; any person with the public key could encrypt a message online, but only the person with the private key could decipher the message.
The Diffie–Hellman key exchange was a major breakthrough and became "the foundation for most regularly used security protocols on the internet today," according to the Association for Computer Machinery, which gives out the Turing Award. Prior to this development, two people wishing to share encrypted information had to first privately exchange both the keys for encryption and for decryption. By making the encryption key public, Diffie and Hellman made it possible for two parties to secretly share information without ever having to meet.
The association will present the Turing Award to Diffie and Hellman at the association's annual banquet this June in San Francisco.