Martin Hellman: Finding the Truth Is More Important Than Getting Your Way

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An inventor of public key cryptography explains why listening is the key to solving problems — in one's personal life and everywhere else.

Cryptography remains as controversial today as it was in the mid-1970s when Martin Hellman was doing
his seminal work. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In the 1970s, Martin Hellman and a team of colleagues at Stanford invented public key cryptography, the technology that enables today’s electronic commerce and secure private communications. In the process, Hellman ran afoul of the National Security Agency, but in the long run prevailed. In recognition of that achievement, the Association for Computing Machinery recently named Hellman and his co-inventor, Whitfield Diffie, winners of the 2015 Turing Award, which is often called the “Nobel Prize of computing.” Since those early days, Hellman’s interests have ranged widely. He and his wife of 49 years, Dorothie, are working on a book about the techniques of successful communication that saved their marriage and which, they maintain, can be applied to solve society’s knottiest problems. On the eve of the Turing Award announcement, Hellman sat down to discuss the invention that changed the world and the many directions his life has taken since.

Where do you come down on the feud between Apple and the FBI?

Well, I’m always surprised by where the encryption story goes, but it fits in with what I imagined would happen even back in the 1970s. We’re going much too fast. These are big, societal problems, with huge long-term implications. So you need to apply some critical thinking before jumping to conclusions, and that’s not happening. The FBI is playing a public relations game, as is Apple. The FBI picked a really sympathetic case. The public is up in arms over the San Bernardino terrorist killings, so it is a great poster child and a brilliant move on the FBI’s part. Apple is in public relations mode, too, though I think they are on better technical ground.

What the FBI wants Apple to do is bypass encryption features in the iPhone by installing a one-of-a-kind operating system on this lone phone. But that also means that, in all likelihood, Apple will be asked to do the same for every phone law enforcement wants to access. Doing that threatens the crown jewels of personal privacy. If you do this for thousands of phones — and the number of requests is likely to be even larger — the chance of compromising Apple’s secret key or equivalent information goes way up. Once compromised, the whole security architecture of the iPhone is dead. I doubt that we want that. Even law enforcement would suffer since it would facilitate iPhone-related criminal acts.

If Apple is forced to do this, it creates a really bad precedent. It’s not clear that the FBI needs access to this phone — they don’t even know what’s on it. There will be thousands upon thousands of similar government requests — not always as serious as this — and the requests will come not just from the American government, but from the Chinese and the Russians, too.

Do we really want to open that spigot? What are the security implications of that?

My current position is to side with Apple and say this needs to be looked at much more carefully, much more objectively, and with much more technical expertise than has been applied so far.

I was sort of the general of the privacy army back in the late 1970s. My chief adversary back then was the head of the NSA, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. Stanford magazine recently talked to Inman about that time.

When the magazine asked if his perspective had changed, Inman replied, that rather than being concerned about our work being published openly: “I would have been interested in how quickly they were going to be able to make [cryptosystems] available in a form that would protect proprietary information as well as government information.”

It turns out, ironically, that he is as worried today about protecting nongovernmental computer systems as I was then. I’ve also come to better understand his concerns, and that kind of interested dialogue is what’s needed. Not only on this Apple case, but within the cybersecurity debate in general.

Do you feel the same about Edward Snowden?

The Snowden problem is complicated. He had access to tens-of-thousands of classified documents and was able to copy them. To me, it’s a story about the dangers of inexpensive storage and relaxed access standards.

In many ways, I was the Edward Snowden of the late 1970s, early ’80s, except I didn’t divulge classified information. Rather, my group at Stanford and I were working on information that NSA believed was “born classified.” Their position was that we were breaking the law simply by publishing our papers that improved encryption.

Today, as Inman points out, it wasn’t as simple as they thought, but as I’ve already noted, it also wasn’t as simple as I thought. Back in the late 1970s, when NSA and I were in that fight, each of us used every tool we could to bring down the other side. We were trying to win. Neither of us was interested in the truth. And I made a vow never to do that again, once I saw how badly it can boomerang in a different context.

So, how did you parlay your experiences with encryption into working on things like conflict resolution between spouses and geopolitical powers?

There’s a really simple answer: my wife, Dorothie. That’s the three-word answer. We got married in 1967 and we were madly in love, but then life set in. I continued to live my life by logic, which really helped mess up the marriage. We were almost surely headed for divorce, but, fortunately, we were in denial. If we weren’t we would have said, “We’ve tried everything, let’s just give up.”

Dorothie got us invited to a weekend retreat run by what I first saw as a crazy conflict resolution group called “Creative Initiative.” That soon morphed into “Beyond War,” a Silicon Valley–based effort to change societal thinking about nuclear weapons and war. At first, it was a move to save my marriage, and it worked. We transformed an almost failed marriage into one where we haven’t had a single fight or argument in well over 10 years.

If there’s a link to encryption, it’s in radically new ways of communicating. Public key cryptography sounded impossible at first, as did having a vibrant marriage with no fighting or arguments. Dorothie and I are now writing a book that explains why working on global issues was essential to bringing magic back into our marriage, and how successful personal relationships can serve as a model for a peaceful, sustainable planet that would eliminate untold human misery and reduce the risk of nuclear war.

The key is a shift from fighting for what you think you want to applying that same energy and passion to discovering solutions that work for all parties. My wife and I used to argue about who was right; neither willing to budge. Now, we look for solutions that meet both of our needs. At first, it took unbelievably hard work for us to find such “holistic solutions,” but now it’s almost second nature. Making peace with Dorothie was a lot harder for me than seeing how to resolve our conflict with the Soviets, because I was emotionally involved. But seeing the mistakes we were making as a nation helped me to see how I was doing the same as a husband.

We take that micro-level thinking about our marriage and apply it to the biggest macro-level problems the world has to solve: nuclear weapons, war and peace, and sustainability. For example, you can’t deal with nuclear weapons in isolation. You need to deal with the whole mentality — you need to take a holistic approach to the problem. And you don’t have to wait for the other guy to make the first move. If you look back at the 1980s, many of Gorbachev’s unilateral changes produced a change in us, too, and that was good for everyone. Dorothie and I will use my share of the $1 million Turing Award to further our efforts to create a more peaceful, sustainable world.

Encryption, nuclear deterrence, saving a marriage — the key to it all is to communicate in new ways that the conventional wisdom says are impossible. (Read more about Martin Hellman’s thoughts on these topics on his blog: Defusing the Nuclear Threat.)

Last modified Tue, 1 Mar, 2016 at 15:49