A freedom fighter for computer security Encryption: This self-described peacenik's digital crusade has long been a thorn in the side of the super-secret National Security Agency.

December 31, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- If you've ever ordered a book over the Internet or checked the balance in your bank account, a flash across your computer screen probably said your transaction was "secure" -- a promise that your financial information would not be broadcast across the Internet.

Standing behind such a promise is Whitfield Diffie, who looks as if he took a wrong turn at Woodstock and emerged in the blue-suit world of Washington.

This math whiz-turned-inventor-turned-lobbyist has become a fixture of Senate subcommittee rooms, American Bar Association meetings, math conventions and even military conferences. If someone is debating computer security, Diffie is there.

But Diffie's digital crusade has long been a thorn in the side of the National Security Agency. The conflict is over a process of mathematically scrambling computer data to keep it secret. It's called encryption.

Diffie believes encryption is an important personal privacy tool and is vital for making the Internet an online shopping mall. But the NSA, and the FBI, say government must control encryption -- mainly to prevent criminals from keeping too many computerized secrets.

Until about 25 years ago, encryption had been the sole domain of the NSA. But in the early days of the computer age, a test of wills erupted between the NSA and math mavericks such as Diffie, who believed that encryption -- like free speech -- belonged to everyone.

Diffie and NSA officials met face to face in a landmark, daylong meeting in Palo Alto in 1976.

So began a complex relationship between the long-haired, self-described "peace-nik" and the super-secret spy agency. It triggered some unlikely soul-searching at the NSA: remain in the shadows, or emerge and cooperate with the Microsofts and Intels developing a digitized society?

Former NSA Director Bobby Inman said the question set off intense internal debate in the mid- to late 1970s. Hard-liners wanted to prosecute folks such as Diffie. Others wanted to cooperate -- particularly with the NSA's primary antagonists, including Diffie.

"His reputation was such that there was a great eagerness to make sure he was part of the dialogue," Inman said.

Now that e-mail, America Online and Internet shopping are part of everyday life, Vice President Al Gore, the 106th Congress and the Supreme Court are seeking answers to the same questions: Who owns encryption, and who can use it?

"I got into this because I thought having an essential technology of privacy that was a government secret was a bad idea. I still think that," Diffie said, sitting one recent morning in his favorite Palo Alto coffee shop, a mile from the site of that 1976 meeting.

"This is what you had routinely in Soviet society, bureaucrats who say, 'You can't do that.' You say, 'Why?' They say, 'I don't have to tell you.' "

Unraveling secrets

Diffie was born in 1944 in Queens, where, he says, he didn't learn to read until he was 10. He once told an interviewer what he did as a child: "The same thing I do as an adult. I mostly remember staring off into space. From time to time I did well in mathematics."

A fifth-grade teacher introduced him to cryptography -- secret codes. Diffie had his father bring home books on the subject from City College of New York, where he was a history professor. "I found that I enjoyed unraveling secrets," Diffie said.

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, Diffie worked at Stanford University before his obsession with cryptography overtook him. For two years he traveled the country in a Datsun 510, visiting libraries and interviewing cryptographers.

Along the way he met his wife, Mary Fischer, an Egyptologist, and returned to Palo Alto to meet Stanford Professor Martin Hellman, who he'd heard was also interested in "crypto."

Cryptography, in its noncomputerized form, is an age-old art of writing in and deciphering secret codes. With the advent of the computer, complex algorithms -- the basis of encryption -- have been used to scramble and then reassemble data that users want to keep secret.

The NSA, created secretly in 1952 to eavesdrop on U.S. foes, was home to the nation's top cryptographers and most advanced encryption technologies by the mid-1970s.

But in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, some mathematicians began questioning the NSA's monopoly on encryption. Diffie and Hellman made names for themselves by publicly criticizing an NSA-developed encryption program for banks and corporations that they said was purposely made weak so that the NSA could crack the code if it wanted to access private corporate data.

Nervous about a new generation of computer users keeping digitized secrets, the NSA tried to either discourage ground-breaking mathematicians -- or to hire them.

'Clear difference of opinion'

That's how Diffie, Hellman and two other researchers came to meet with two top NSA officials, on Jan. 9, 1976, in a second-floor conference room overlooking a garden.

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