The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Martin Hellman

Born October 2, 1945, New York City, USA

ACM A.M. Turing Award (2015 – Together with Whitfield Diffie) – For inventing and promulgating both asymmetric public-key cryptography, including its application to digital signatures, and a practical cryptographic key-exchange method.

Martin E. Hellman was born on October 2, 1945 in New York City, and was raised in the Bronx, attending the Bronx High School of Science. In 1966, he graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and left New York to pursue his graduate education at Stanford.

Hellman received his master’s and PhD from Stanford University in 1967 and 1969 respectively, and then moved back east to begin working at the IBM Watson Research Center in the Pattern Recognition Methodology Department. In Yorktown, he met the cryptographer Horst Feistel and the discussions they shared played an important role in sparking his interest in cryptography. Another key figure Hellman met at IBM was Alan Konheim, who ended up being responsible for Hellman and Whitfield Diffie crossing paths years later.

Hellman left IBM in September of 1969 to teach Electrical Engineering at MIT and became part of a research group that was run by information theorist Peter Elias. Elias introduced Hellman to a paper published by Claude Shannon in 1949 that revealed to Hellman that cryptography fell under the umbrella of information theory, the area of his doctoral research.

What Hellman had gathered about cryptography over the years and what was still shrouded in mystery had both made a significant impact on him. In 1971, the call of the west coast led him to return to Stanford University on its Electrical Engineering faculty. He saw a valuable future in cryptography and began to gravitate more and more in that direction, but with no support from his colleagues. “Initially, all my colleagues thought I was crazy, and had very good reasons why it was not a good area to work in,” said Hellman.

Fortunately, Hellman was not deterred and pursued onward in isolation, until 1974 when he was joined by a kindred spirit. Whitfield Diffie had spent a few years gathering any information on cryptography that he could and in a meeting with Alan Konheim at IBM, he was advised to look up Hellman when he returned to Stanford, where he had worked in the AI Lab. “It was like being in a desert and coming across an oasis when I met Whit,” said Hellman after having worked in a vacuum for so long. Their immediate bond and adamant drive led to the revolutionary breakthrough of public-key cryptography.

When Diffie and Hellman learned that Ralph C. Merkle, a student at Berkeley, had independently conceived of the concept of public-key distribution, they started to work together. They were able to use Merkle’s idea to create a practical key distribution scheme that became known as ‘Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange’ but Hellman has argued should be called ‘Diffie-Hellman-Merkle Key Exchange’ if names are to be associated with it. This algorithm was described in their 1976 paper “New Directions in Cryptography,” which also introduced the more general framework of a public key cryptosystem that would provide both public-key distribution and digital signatures. Public-key cryptography completely altered the landscape, enabling information to be securely exchanged over insecure channels without prearrangement. When the Internet was developed, this allowed secure online commerce possible, as well as safely sharing personal information.

Public-key cryptography also laid the groundwork for additional developments in the field. Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman later used that approach to develop the RSA algorithm, for which they received the ACM Turing Award in 2002.

Diffie and Hellman remained adamant and prominent figures in the struggle for everyone to enjoy the security of solid encryption. They also fought for researchers to have the right to freely publish their findings in cryptography, battling strenuous regulation efforts by government and military agencies. They tirelessly worked to balance the scales and put more power in the hands of the public, which occasionally put them in less than popular positions with the government and its agencies. It is largely due to these efforts, coupled with the results of their research, that the internet of today has security features.

Hellman received several patents, arguably the most significant being the public-key cryptography patent in 1980. He went on to receive many honors including election to the US National Academy of Engineering (2002), the Marconi International Fellowship (2000), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award (1994). In 1996, Hellman became professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford. In the 1980s Hellman’s research moved into international security and ways to reduce the risk of a disaster involving nuclear weapons. Years of research and experience went into the book Hellman co-authored with his wife Dorothie, A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet, published in 2016.