The groundbreaking algorithm from Whitfield Diffie (right) and Martin Hellman (left) enabled a secure Internet and sparked a clash with the NSA that foreshadowed current privacy battles between government agencies and Silicon Valley companies.
After the publication of “New Directions in Cryptography” (1976), the conflict intensified as the NSA waged a concerted campaign to limit the distribution of Diffie and Hellman’s research.
An NSA employee even sent a letter to the publishers warning that the authors could be subject to prison time for violating U.S. laws restricting export of military weapons.
These skirmishes became known as the first of the “crypto wars.”
Ultimately, the NSA failed to limit the spread of their ideas, and public key cryptography became the backbone of modern Internet security.