Martin Hellman and his contribution to Cryptography

In the world of cryptography, where a number of people have made contributions to this space, one of the most important researchers is Martin Hellman. He is an American cryptologist popularly known and remembered for being the pioneer in the research of asymmetric cryptography. Most notably, his work paved the way for the recent advent and research on computer security and computing. 

His early studies and the beginning of his career

Dr Hellman’s academic career started in his hometown, Bronx borough in New York, where he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. His father, a high school teacher, influenced his child subconsciously through his collection of books that was believed to have inspired his son’s interest in Mathematics and Science. 

In 1966, he bagged his BA in Electrical Engineering from New York University. He further proceeded to Stanford University, where he bagged his master’s degree in the year 1967. He then had his PhD from the same university. He met and married the love of his life during his first year of graduate school.

Hellman discovered his interest in cryptography during his early career. During his master’s and postgraduate studies, Hellman met Horst Feistel, a popular IBM cryptographer, working at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Hellman worked with some other notable cryptographic scientists aside from Horst but remained ever grateful to Horst Feistel, who taught him about classical cryptographic systems. Horst later created the DES encryption standard. 

Hellman left IBM in 1969 and was appointed as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he joined a research group headed by the popular theorist Peter Elias.

In 1971, Hellman left MIT and was later appointed as an assistant professor at the great citadel of learning, Stanford University, where he served the faculty full-time for a whopping twenty-five years before he was credited with the status of an Emeritus Professor as a Senior Lecturer in 1996. IBM’s investment in cryptography had encouraged Hellman to develop further his passion for writing in the cryptography field. He wrote his first technical report in 1973.

He would later join the department of electrical engineering at Stanford University in 1971 as an assistant professor. There, he served on the faculty full-time for twenty-five years before taking Emeritus Professor status as a Senior Lecturer in 1996.

Creating asymmetric cryptography

Shortly after Martin Hellman and Diffie’s initial 1974 meeting, they began working together. Diffie and Hellman became aware of similar, independent work being done by Ralph Merkle, then a Masters student in Computer Science at the University of California-Berkeley.

Merkle’s work was underappreciated at Berkeley. A major reason Hellman encouraged him to enrol as a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, which he did in 1976 where he later completed his PhD in 1979 under Hellman’s direction. 

In 1974, Merkle developed the concept of public-key distribution, including an impractical proof of concept known as Merkle Puzzles. Soon afterwards, and independently, Diffie and Hellman proposed a more elegant approach known as a public-key cryptosystem, which could provide public-key distribution and digital signatures. They also developed a practical method of public-key distribution, now known as Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange

In 1976, Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie worked together in a publication known as “New Directions in Cryptography”. Their amazing work was quickly recognized as revolutionary due to its uniqueness. Moreover, the system was useful in proffering a solution to one of the most challenging issues in cryptography, which was to share the keys among a group so that the keys could only be understood by the people interested in creating a private and secure form of communication without the involvement of any third party. 

To make this possible, they created the public key exchange platform named Diffie-Hellman. This platform allows two parties to share the important information needed to safely create an encrypted communication channel without any form of intermediaries. The platform, which also had the collaboration of Ralph Merkle, is also known as Diffie-Hellman-Merkle.

This work established the beginning of a new era of advancement in the crypto space. It marked the advent of what we know as cryptography in recent times, especially the one actively used within different cryptocurrency projects around the world. Digital signature techniques such as ECDSA, EdDSA, Schnorr or more secure technologies such as Zero-Knowledge Tests (ZKP) and SNARKS tests (zk-SNARK and zk-STARK) are just an evolution of this technology in the fact that Hellman was a fundamental part of its development.

Other notable contributions to security

Apart from this, Martin Hellman played a notable role in what is now regarded as the “First Crypto Wars”. This event occurred in the late 70s and early 80s when the United State’s government and its allies went against the public use of asymmetric cryptography systems with the fear that they would indirectly be helping the Soviet Union, its army, and spy systems.

In his role as a strong leader during the Crypto Wars, who advocated for digital security and privacy, one of the first things he did was to inform users about the weakness of the DES standard. He and his associate, Diffie, shared resources and studies to demonstrate that DES was a platform that could be manipulated without major difficulties. 

It would take almost 20 years to prove this theory when a group of people with RSA security, one of the Diffie-Hellman theories to break DES, was applied with a total breakthrough. This surpassed the highest standard of security in the computer world to date, thus making it obvious how wrong the government organizations were about the security of DES and the subsequent 3DES (TripleDES).

Other Hellman’s great contributions and achievements were seen between 1994 and 1996 when Hellman was part of the National Cryptographic Policy Study Committee of the National Research Council.