Born in 1944, Diffie is one of the most august cryptographers in history, thanks to his contributions to public-key encryption.

As a youth, Diffie tore through any book on mathematics he could get his grubby meathooks into. He later studied mathematics at MIT, took a few assorted computer security jobs in the late 60's and 70's, and many people label him as the first cypherpunk. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that he was one of the first cryptographers to not be perpetually employed by goverment agencies, such as the NSA.

Diffie worked on ARPANet, the military precursor to the internet, and predicted the coming of a day when private home users would network their computers together. Private citizens, he reasoned, might be interested in securing their messages to each other through encryption.

Teaming up with Martin Hellman and Ralph Merkle, Diffie came up with the idea of asymmetric key encryption (encryption using one-way functions such as modular arithmetic) which Hellman was able to use to create the Diffie-Hellman-Merkle key exchange system. This became the basis for RSA encyption, which Phil Zimmerman would later use to create PGP.

Diffie co-authored the books Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption with Susan Landau, and Cracking Codes : The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment with Richard Parkinson and Mary Fisher. He has written more papers than you can shake a really big shaking stick at.

Since becoming famous, Whitfield Diffie has spent much of his public life promoting privacy rights. He is among a small number of people in America who speak with high visibility about the loosely leftist world-view that might be called hacker ethic or anarchism or anti-authoritarian philosophy.

A stereotype about the American left is that it is rigidly egalitarian. It seems to me that that this chestnut overlooks the petulant elitism of the hacker movement in its most general sense. In an interview, Diffie once said,

The things talked about in conversation at MIT, the people who were talking about them took themselves seriously. If they had good ideas on them they would recognise them and work on these things. That seems to me an immensely important attitude. That really is one of the things that separates good intellects from mediocre intellects, is the understanding that the intellect matters, that you matter. If you have ambition, you might not achieve anything, but without ambition, you are almost certain not to achieve anything, if you don't believe you can achieve something.

Diffie is quite a rebel to say that, because eliltism is viewed harshly in American society. It may actually be the gravest faux pas a person can commit in America. The Jargon File concurs with Diffie, however:

Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. (under Hacker)

Quotation is taken from the Interview with Whitfield Diffie on the Development of Public Key Cryptography, Conducted by Franco Furger in Palo Alto, 1992. Posted at

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