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Martin E. Hellman

Martin Hellman (b. October 2, 1945), currently Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, is best known in the field of computer security for his work on cryptography. At Stanford in the 1970s, Hellman, Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle created the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange, a method that allows two parties to exchange encrypted information securely over a public channel that has since become the basis for public key cryptography. The exchange was outlined in the 1976 paper "New Directions in Cryptography." Throughout his career Hellman has been an active participant in discussions of ethics and privacy in computer security. Over the course of his career, Hellman has published over seventy papers and registered ten U.S. patents. He has also been the recipient of major awards including the RSA Lifetime Achievement Award. Hellman continued at Stanford, where he served on the regular faculty until becoming Professor Emeritus in 1996.(1)

Hellman received his B.E. from New York University in 1966, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1967 and 1969, all in Electrical Engineering. Worked briefly at IBM's Watson Research Center from 1968-69 and then as an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT from 1969-71. In 1971 he returned to Stanford and joined the Electrical Engineering faculty. Hellman met Whitfield Diffie in 1975 while Diffie was on a research trip. Hellman and Diffie shared a frustration at the fact that most of the significant research in cryptography was taking place at the National Security Agency where it was inaccessible to to most scientists and engineers. Together with Ralph Merkle, Hellman and Diffie created the concept of the trap door one-way function. Such a function is essentially a mathematical equation that can be solved easily in one direction but not the other. This allows for the creation of a shareable public key and a personal private key and is the system on which the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange is based.(2)(3)

For a number of years after the publication of "New Directions in Cryptography" and other papers having to do with public key cryptography, there was debate between academic cryptographers and the NSA over whether research on cryptography should be kept confidential for national security reasons. Part of Hellman's drive in developing public key cryptography came from his opinion fact current encryption standards set by the National Bureau of Standards, which called for a fifty-six bit encryption key, and which had been created with guidance from the NSA, were not secure enough. Hellman and Diffie calculated that the NSA or other agencies could break the encryption with an investment on the order of $10,000. The NSA vehemently denied this, and in doing so generated antagonism between themselves and academics such as Hellman and Diffie. This was exacerbated when an NSA employee who was a member of the IEEE sent a letter to the organization which argued that the publishing of papers such as "New Directions in Cryptography" could be in violation of the International Traffic of Arms Regulation, and could thus lead to possible fines or jail time. While no one was ever tried under such circumstances, the antagonism continued through the next several decades, though Hellman in his later career came to see the debate as less black-and-white.(4)

Jeffrey Yost from the Charles Babbage Institute conducted an oral history interview with Martin Hellman (OH 375) on November 22, 2004.


1 , 2 : http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/

3 , 4 : Martin Hellman, OH 375. Oral history interview by Jeffrey R. Yost, 22 November 2004, Palo Alto, California. Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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