Who is Martin Hellman?

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Do you know who Martin Hellman is? Martin Hellman is one of the foremost scholars in the world of cryptography. This prominent figure was a pioneer in the research of asymmetric cryptography. Hellman’s work and research laid the foundation for what would be the future of cryptography and computer security.

Hellman owes much of his fame to being the inventor, along with Whitfield Diffie, of a public key cryptography system. In 1976, both developers published ‘New Directions in Cryptography‘, a project that would later introduce a radical change in the world of cryptography. It was a new distribution method capable of solving one of the biggest problems of cryptography until then known, the distribution of keys. In this article we will tell you all about this outstanding cryptographer.

History of Martin Hellman

Martin Edward Hellman was born on October 2, 1945. This cryptographer is known worldwide for being one of the co-authors of the asymmetric cryptography system. He collaborated and worked together with Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle, one of the world’s most renowned computer scientists and cryptographers for his work on public key encryption and Merkle trees.

Since that time, Hellman became an essential part of the study, research and development of cryptographic and computer security systems in the blockchain world.

Martin’s studies began in New York, where he was born. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and by 1966, Hellman had already earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University. A year later, in 1967, Hellman received his master’s degree from Stanford University. Hellman then completed his studies with a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

While Hellman was a student, he also worked at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. At this research center he met Horst Feistel. Feistel was a renowned IBM cryptographer who would later go on to develop the DES encryption standard. After receiving his Ph.D., Martin Hellman went on to become an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Some time later Hellman joined the electrical engineering department at Stanford University in 1971 where he held the position of assistant professor. At Stanford University, he served on the full-time faculty for twenty-five years. He subsequently held the status of professor emeritus as a full professor in 1996.


Hellman and asymmetric cryptography

By 1976, Hellman, with the help of Whitfield Diffie, worked on a project known as “New Directions in Cryptography“. The work of the two developers quickly achieved wide recognition as a revolutionary work because the scheme of its operation was clearly different from any other previously published work. The system that Hellman and Diffie proposed in the project was capable of solving the biggest problem in cryptography. This problem was based on distributing the keys among a certain group in such a way that these keys could only be understood by the parties interested in creating a secure communication channel. Thanks to this operation, it was possible to leave the rest out of the communication channel.

To achieve this goal, both developers created a public key exchange scheme called Diffie-Hellman. This scheme was capable of allowing two parties to share the information necessary to develop an encrypted communication channel with a high level of security and without any intermediary. Subsequently, another scheme was developed with the collaboration of Ralph Merkle. This scheme adopted the name Diffie-Hellman-Merkle.

By this time Hellman had already done some impressive and cutting-edge work, however, this was only the beginning of an era full of cryptographic development and marked the beginning of today’s cryptography, i.e. the cryptography we use today in the world of cryptocurrencies. The technology we know as ECDSA and EdDSA, Schnorr Signatures or security technologies such as Zero Knowledge Proofs (ZKP) are an evolution of cryptography in which Hellman played a great role.

Security Contributions

In addition to the cryptographic work mentioned above, Hellman was instrumental in other contributions to security such as leading the “First Crypto Wars“. This was an event held in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at a time when the U.S. government, with some collaborators, prevented asymmetric cryptography systems from being used publicly for fear that these tools would be used to aid the Soviet Union as well as its military and espionage systems.

Martin Hellman always maintained his position as an advocate of digital security and privacy. After leading Crypto Wars, one of the first tasks he undertook was to warn insistently about the weakness of the DES standard. Hellman and his partner Diffie invested all their resources and studies in demonstrating to the world that DES was a system that could be exploited and hacked without any difficulty.

After almost 20 years, it was possible to demonstrate the reality of this theory. In 1997, in collaboration with RSA Security, one of the Diffie-Hellman theories was successfully applied to break DES. With this demonstration, the highest security standard known worldwide to date was broken. In this way, it became clear that government organizations were wrong about the security of DES and later 3DES (TripleDES).

Another of Hellman’s major contributions that we cannot fail to mention occurred when, between 1994 and 1996, Hellman served on the National Research Council’s National Cryptographic Policy Study Committee.