Diffie and Hellman named winners of the ACM AM Turing Award

The RSA cryptographers' panel was the occasion Tuesday for the announcement of the winners of the annual ACM AM Turing Award.

The award is named for British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing who did pioneering work in cryptography and was instrumental in cracking the German's enigma code in World War II. The prize is worth $1 million (£600,000), a four-fold increase on previous years thanks to a significant contribution by Google.

The winners were named as Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman who were on stage as part of the cryptographers' panel on Tuesday at RSA 2016.

Diffie and Hellman introduced the ideas of public-key cryptography and digital signatures, the foundation of today's secure internet communications.

The Diffie-Hellman protocol anticipated the need for secure communications in 1976. ACM President Alexander Wolf said: “In 1976, Diffie and Hellman imagined a future where people would regularly communicate through electronic networks and be vulnerable to having their communications stolen or altered. Now, after nearly 40 years, we see that their forecasts were remarkably prescient.”

Speaking at the panel, Diffie and Hellman both noted how much had changed in computer science and society since their groundbreaking paper.

At the time, there were members of the US government, including Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who wanted to imprison them for publishing their paper and revealing information with national security implications.

They also noted how attitudes about homosexuality had changed. Alan Turing, after whom the award is named, was persecuted for being homosexual despite the vital role that he played in defeating the Nazis in World War II.