Sun's chief security officer Whitfield Diffie on the Hot Seat

The co-inventor of public-key encryption talks about encryption, spies as data miners and the end of computer security as we know it.

Whitfield Diffie, a co-inventor of public-key encryption, is chief security officer at Sun Microsystems and co-author with Susan Landau of Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption (The MIT Press, 2007).

Why has public-key encryption been so important? Cryptography is the most flexible way we know of protecting communications in channels that we don't control. As we move a lot of value into the Internet and have Internet commerce and begin buying and selling things, that is basically the only way of protecting either the transactions or - where the goods are intellectual property - the goods themselves.

Before public-key cryptography, in order to be able to use cryptography with somebody, you had to share a secret with them, which is kind of an intimate relationship for somebody you might never have met before. Public- key cryptography relaxed all of that and made it much easier to manage keys in a very diverse environment like Internet commerce, as opposed to the more traditional large but rather unified environments like the Department of Defense.

Why do you think that more e-mails aren't using encryption or digital signatures? I think it has to do with the difficulty of the key management. The key point is that cryptography has somehow not gotten itself tucked into the inner loop of development in these things. You really have to be a fan to be able to do it with your e-mail, and then you can really only do it with other people who are fans. So far, it's remained a niche market.

What's the difference between Internet communications and phone communications for cryptography and privacy? The key managerial virtue of cryptography is that it separates security from the medium of transmission of the message. Once the message has been encrypted, it doesn't matter how you send it - whether you send it by an optical fiber, which is already fairly secure, or you send it by digitizing it and putting it onto the Internet, or whether you send it by satellite.

Are either government or corporate policies on data retention and data mining having important effects on privacy or security? Yes. They're very good for our sales of storage.

Information is very much like oil and gold and a lot other things. Once we got what was there readily bubbling up on the surface, then we mined out the original resources and we developed better technology, and now we can work gold seams that are a tiny fraction of what would have been worked in the boom of the 1850s.

Intelligence and data flows are very much the same thing. If you look at World War II intelligence, it really is a matter of picking plums. The reason they concentrated on the cryptography of the time is that they were able to find, so to speak, the channels with the best information in them. Those channels had some kind of protection in them, and once [cryptographers] got through the protection, they had very good information handed to them on a plate.

If you look at circumstances facing real-world spies today, they have things available to them and other things they might want that aren't available to them. If they can do more processing on the things that are available to them, they may be able to get very good information they couldn't have gotten some time ago because they didn't have the techniques and the computing power. And so data mining is just going to become more and more a fact of life.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Joyce Carpenter

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?