2011: Whitfield Diffie

The Joe Desch Innovation Award

2011

It has been a challenge for me to explain the importance of the work of this year’s honoree.CISAC People It’s best to say that it is the invisible yet essential underpinning of so much of everyday life online.

Whit Diffie didn”t build something physical, he didn’t invent an object — years ahead of his time, he struggled with the idea of privacy in a future world of digital communication, and with his colleague Martin Hellman produced the body of work called public key cryptography. Nearly every day now reports of security breeches in national and international institutions appear in the news. In recent years the public has been bombarded with information we need to keep our personal information private yet be able to navigate and use electronic tools for convenience and entertainment. And now the term “social network” is commonplace. Not only people born in this information age but grandparents and gr-grandparent use Facebook and Twitter as ways to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. This is a new world that has almost instantaneously sprung up not only in western society but world wide. It is fantastic yet threatening.

Forty years ago a young man thought a lot about these problems. He was one of a small group of researchers brooding on the idea of privacy — at that point the internet, as such, was only an concept. He’s made himself an advocate for the protection of privacy. At the same time he has been recognized in an number of settings for the vision he had in 1976:

  • Inducted in 2011 into the Computer History Museum Hall of Fellows and the National Inventors Hall of Fame with Martin Hellman and Ralph Merkle.
  • 2010 Richard W. Hamming Medal by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) For exceptional contributions to information sciences, systems and technology
  • 2000 The Marconi Prize awarded by the Marconi Society
  • 1997 the Louis E. Levy Medal from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia
  • 1996 ACM Paris Kanallakis Award for Theory and Practice together with Martin Hellman and Ralph Merkle. The Kanellakis Award honors specific theoretical accomplishments that have had a significant and demonstrable effect on the practice of computing.
  • 1996 National Computer Systems Security Award given jointly by NIST and NSA
  • 1994 Pioneer Award, given by The Electronic Frontiers Foundation for contribution to the quality of life in cyberspace
  • In 1992 Diffie was awarded a Doctorate in Technical Sciences (Honoris Causa) by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in recognition of the work done at Stanford years earlier.
  • July 2008, he was also awarded a degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) by Royal Holloway College of the University of London

And there are more….