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Some History of Public-Key Cryptography
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In the mid-1970s, Stanford University graduate student Whitfield Diffie and professor Martin Hellman investigated cryptography in general and the key distribution problem in particular. The two came up with a scheme whereby two people could create a shared secret key by exchanging public information. They could communicate over public lines, sending information back and forth in a form readable by eavesdroppers, at the same time generating a secret value not made public. The two correspondents would then be able to use that secret value as a symmetric session key (discussed in more detail soon). The name given to this scheme is Diffie-Hellman, or DH.
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DH solves a problem-sharing a key but it s not encryption. That does not make it unusable; in fact, DH is in use to this day. But it was not the ultimate algorithm, one that could be used for encryption. Diffie and Hellman published their result in 1976. That paper outlined the idea of public-key cryptography (one key encrypts, the other decrypts), pointed out that the authors did not yet have such an algorithm, and described what they had so far. Ron Rivest, a professor at MIT, was intrigued by Diffie and Hellman s idea of public-key cryptography and decided to create the ultimate algorithm. He recruited two colleagues Adi Shamir and Len Adleman to work on the problem. In 1977, the trio developed an algorithm that could indeed encrypt data. They published the algorithm in 1978, and it became known as RSA, the initials of its inventors. In 1985, working independently, two men Neal Koblitz of the University of Washington and Victor Miller of IBM s Watson Research Center proposed that an obscure branch of math called elliptic curves could be used to perform public-key cryptography. By the late 1990s, this class of algorithms had begun to gain momentum. Since 1977 (and 1985), many researchers have invented many publickey algorithms. To this day, however, the most commonly used public-key algorithm for solving the key distribution problem is RSA. In second place is DH, followed by elliptic curves. We talk about these algorithms in the following sections.
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How Public-Key Cryptography Works
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It s easy to imagine symmetric-key crypto. Using the key, you follow a step-by-step procedure to scramble the outgoing data. To decrypt it, you perform the steps in reverse. If the last thing the encryptor did was to rotate a word, the first thing the decryptor does is to rotate the ciphertext word in the other direction by the same amount (see Figure 4-7). If the key used to encrypt the data is the key used to decrypt it, the rotation number will be the same. (If the key is wrong, there is a chance that particular rotation may still be correct, but almost all the rest of the operations down the line, maybe an XOR here or an AND there, will be wrong.) But with public-key cryptography, such a procedure won t work. You can t simply reverse the steps. Why not The quick answer has to do with math. Whereas symmetric-key crypto simply operates on the data as bits
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The Key Distribution Problem and Public-Key Cryptography
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Who Invented Public-Key Cryptography
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Because they published the first papers on the subject, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, along with Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adleman, are generally credited with inventing public-key cryptography in the mid 1970s. Another researcher, Ralph Merkle, also deserves credit for his pioneering work. Yet British and U.S. information security organizations claim that they developed these techniques in the 1960s and 1970s. Did they The Code Book, Simon Singh s history of crypto, gives ample evidence that James Ellis of the British Communications Electronic Security Group (CESG) proposed the idea of asymmetric encryption in the 1960s. Apparently, he was inspired after reading an anonymous paper written at Bell Labs during World War II. Ellis had difficulty finding an algorithm that would work. In 1973, mathematician Clifford Cocks joined the CESG. Ellis described the concept to him, and within a few minutes Cocks had devised a solution that was essentially the algorithm known today as RSA. In 1974, Malcolm Williamson, another Ellis colleague, described yet another algorithm, this one similar to the one we call Diffie-Hellman. Because this work was secret (the CESG is a secret organization, called by some people a spy group), it was never published, and the authors did not receive credit until years later. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) also claims to have invented public-key crypto in the 1960s. Whitfield Diffie has remarked that part of his inspiration for public-key crypto was hearing about the secure phone system at the NSA. Although Diffie did not know how the NSA had solved the key distribution problem, he explains that because he knew it was possible, he figured he could come up with the solution. The NSA system which, it was later learned, used public-key crypto was up and running by the mid1970s, perhaps indicating that years of study preceded deployment. In addition to the NSA phone system, a document with the exciting title National Security Action Memorandum 160 outlines a proposal for installing permissive links onto nuclear weapons. Apparently, this memo was submitted to President John F. Kennedy; it
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