Keeping Secrets

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 7, 2014

What ifyour research could help solve a looming national problem, but government officials thought publishing it would be tantamount to treason? A Stanford professor and his graduate students found themselves in that situation 37 years ago, when their visionary work on computer privacy issues ran afoul of the National Security Agency. At the time, knowledge of how to encrypt and decrypt information was the domain of government; the NSA feared that making the secrets of cryptography public would severely hamper intelligence operations. But as the researchers saw it, society’s growing dependence on computers meant that the private sector would also need effective measures to safeguard information. Both sides’ concerns proved prescient; their conflict foreshadowed what would become a universal tug-of-war between privacy-conscious technologists and security-conscious government officials.

A Controversial Symposium

The International Symposium on Information Theory is not known for its racy content or politically charged presentations, but the session at Cornell University on October 10, 1977, was a special case. In addition to talks with titles like “Distribution-Free Inequalities for the Deleted and Holdout Error Estimates,” the conference featured the work of a group from Stanford that had drawn the ire of the National Security Agency and the attention of the national press. The researchers in question were Martin Hellman, then an associate professor of electrical engineering, and his students Steve Pohlig, MS ’75, PhD ’78, and Ralph Merkle, PhD ’79.

A year earlier, Hellman had published “New Directions in Cryptography” with his student Whitfield Diffie, Gr. ’78. The paper introduced the principles that now form the basis for all modern cryptography, and its publication rightfully caused a stir among electrical engineers and computer scientists. As Hellman recalled in a 2004 oral history, the nonmilitary community’s reaction to the paper was “ecstatic.” In contrast, the “NSA was apoplectic.”

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