Whitfield Diffie, Jim Bidzos and Bruce Schneier

Twenty years before the Internet would create a need for it, a public-key cryptographic standard was discovered and patented by Whitfield Diffie, along with another student and a professor at Stanford University.

Diffie-Hellman was released free to the technical community, ultimately becoming the ubiquitous standard it is today. In his 20 years of waiting for the market's need to catch up with the standard, Diffie coached another visionary who sought to commercialize a different form of encryption. That standard was RSA, discovered by three MIT researchers, and that visionary was Jim Bidzos, who kept RSA Data Security Inc. alive for the 12 years it took for the market's need to catch up with the algorithm.

Diffie's and Bidzos' patience paid off. Both algorithms are bundled in browser security and just about every network protocol in existence, says Dorothy Denning, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University who has written extensively about both standards.

In her many writings on information security, Denning has also often quoted a third cryptographer, Bruce Schneier, who hails from a background of cryptographic management for the military and whose seminal 1993 book, Applied Cryptography (John Wiley & Sons), has brought cryptographic concepts to the mainstream.

Whitfield Diffie

Whitfield Diffie, CSO at Sun Microsystems Inc.
Whitfield Diffie, CSO at Sun Microsystems Inc.
Age: 58

Claim to fame: Co-discoverer of public key cryptography, now an Internet standard called Diffie-Hellman.

What he's doing now: Chief security officer at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.

In 1976, Diffie and his wife, Mary, were struggling college students who lived in a car. Amid his poverty as a Stanford student in the '70s, Diffie was working on complex mathematical algorithms to help protect freedom of speech and privacy in the coming digital age.

Things were a little better when Diffie discovered the solution to these problems in the form of public-key cryptography, which uses public and private digital keys to scramble and unscramble data.

But as Diffie waited the 20 years it would take for the Diffie-Hellman algorithm to be needed, he also fought to lift export-control laws that would hamper people's ability to use encryption, particularly overseas. Those export-control laws were abolished in the late '90s.

"Whit Diffie has been a very public figure for all the right causes. Internet freedom and privacy through cryptography are his personal vision. He's talked to very influential people. A lot of it is due to the sheer force of his personality," says fellow cryptographer Bruce Schneier.

Jim Bidzos

Age: 47

Claim to fame: Took a leadership position at RSA Security Inc.

What he's doing now: Semiretired, he flies small planes and hosts the largest San Francisco Bay-area security conference on record, the RSA Security Conference, at the beginning of each year.

For Bidzos, it was all about money. He saw gold in public-key cryptography long before Arpanet became the Internet. So in 1983, he took the reins of a start-up company called RSA, then kept it running on a shoestring budget for 12 years as he waited for the Internet to create the demand for cryptography.

To keep the company afloat for all those years, Bidzos gave up a personal life, issued stock to everyone in the company and creatively drew up "guaranteed royalty contracts" that required developers to pay royalties even before their products started selling. And for those licensing agreements, says Schneier, "RSA was uniformly despised by the industry."

When the Internet did take off, and application developers started making money on their products, the complaints died down.

Now, semiretired, Bidzos thinks data security will evolve and mature, much the way the insurance and credit card industries have.

"I see the evolution of e-commerce very much like the evolution of the credit card industry. Risk never goes away, it just becomes better understood," Bidzos says. "Ultimately, the level of risk will become acceptable after it's undergone constant study and improvement."

Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security Inc.
Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security Inc.
Age: 39

Claim to fame: Author of the seminal book Applied Cryptography, which has sold more than 200,000 copies since 1993; editor of the security newsgroup Cryptogram, with 80,000 members. Widely quoted security guru.

What he's doing now: Founder and chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., a managed security services provider in Cupertino, Calif.

Schneier says information security should be seen as part of a holistic security program -- all the processes around physical and data security. That attitude explains his firm's integrated security, which is visible at his secure operations center in Santa Clara, Calif., one of two secure locations where his employees monitor security for 200 clients. Even Richard Clarke, President George W. Bush's cyberczar, wasn't allowed past the pixeled glass wall separating the conference room, which is in a secured airlock between the lobby and the security operations center.

Ultimately, says Schneier, information security will become part of a holistic physical and technical system. "So many companies will stand in front of Congress and say, 'Buy my national ID card,' and, 'It's all about my cool technical system,' " Schneier says. "The real world never works that way. It's technology in context of the system and how it affects other systems."

Radcliffe is a freelance writer in Northern California. Contact her at derad@aol.com.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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