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Public Key Cryptography Pioneers Honored

The groundbreaking discovery that paved the way for most of today’s online transactions was recently recognized and honored by IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional association, at a ceremony in Cheltenham, England.

A British team of scientists based at GCHQ developed the first iteration of what is now commonly known as Public Key Cryptography back in the early 1970s, but the invention was considered so important militarily that it was classified and kept secret until 1997. In 1976, an American team from Stanford University also published similar theories. A year later, a team from MIT took American thinking a stage further and the RSA algorithm, which now underpins billions of internet transactions every day, was born.

IEEE, whose "Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing Program" has given scientific and engineering accomplishments recognition all over the world, recognized the work of the British trio, Clifford Cocks, James Ellis, and Malcolm Williamson, as the prestigious "100th IEEE Milestone." A public plaque was unveiled at the Pittsville Pump Rooms by the mayor of Cheltenham Borough Council, Anne Regan, and local MP Martin Horwood, Clifford Cocks and Brenda Ellis, widow of the late James Ellis, attended the event with Dr. Ralph Benjamin, GCHQ Chief Scientist at the time, and a specially invited audience.

“Working at GCHQ on projects of this nature you don’t expect what you do to be recognized outside of the organization because so much of what you work on has to be kept secret,” said Clifford Cocks. “I am immensely proud that my work and that of the rest of the team has been honored in this way and I know James (Ellis) would have been delighted to see this plaque erected.”

“James’ original idea was way ahead of its time and we could never have foreseen how widely used it is today. When the work had been completed, no one could see any application for it in the civilian world; but militarily, it was very useful — hence, GCHQ made the decision to keep it under wraps. “

Public Key Cryptography was a huge breakthrough in secure communications. Up until 1975 it was assumed that for something to be secure it required locking with one key and opening with another. This meant that if you wanted to send something to someone securely you would first have to provide them with the means of opening it. Public Key Cryptography meant encryption could now work in the same way as a padlock — anyone could lock it but only the person with the code could unlock it.

“We are hugely grateful to the work of Peter Hill and the team at the IEEE UKRI for campaigning so tirelessly to have the achievement recognized,” said Dr. Benjamin. “Public Key Encryption is such an everyday part of many people’s lives now — whether banking, shopping or just communicating online. We never dreamt that this work would be used in this way or could make such a fundamental difference to people’s lives.”

The IEEE Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing program honors significant technical achievements in areas associated with IEEE. The Milestones Program was established in 1983.

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