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Whit Diffie’s honorary doctorate at Holloway College

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Yesterday, I had the priviledge to attend the graduation ceremony at the Royal Holloway College as a guest of Whit Diffie who received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in the field of cryptography, namely, his pioneering work on the public private key. Wired article from 1994 on the topic sums it up:

Whitfield Diffie took cryptography out of the hands of the spooks and made privacy possible in the digital age – by inventing the most revolutionary concept in encryption since the Renaissance.

The ceremony started at 10.30am in the splendid college Chapel. Alas, as my flight from Boston was delayed by 3 hours the night before, I arrived too late to see whole thing. However, thanks to Alec I got there in time for Whit’s award and his acceptance speech and managed to record all but the first 10-15 seconds of it. Apologies for the quality, as this is recorded with my normal camera, from a screen outside the chapel.

…open to the opportunity to take risks and do things in unexpected ways and do what you want to but not what people recommend. On the other hand I think I can be said to have overdone this so they, when they give my resume, they normally, they gloss over details. I managed to graduate from MIT and I was later immatriculated at Standford university. Alumni register very tactfully shows me as having “graduated” in 1987, that is to say that have lost track of me. And I have two doctorates both kindly given by universities, both kindly given by universities that recognise quality of the work. And so, I find myself, you know, my work doesn’t seem that impressive to me, but fortunately it seems to have made a better impression on other people. So I found this eaxmple of the fact that it is possible to have a successful career without following the socially recommended paths. But I can also tell you that it must be much… easier to do it in the standard forms. As I can hardly say, I cannot say I don’t regret not having been more capable of a more sustained study and having been able to learn what I needed to learn rather than any given moment merely what I happened to be interested in. Thank you very much.

Diffie hasn’t just refused to fit into an educational system or innovate in structured ways. It was the thinking, Damned-if-I-follow-some-of-your-stupid-rules. Because some of them are stupid. As Steven Levy puts in his book Crypto:

Ultimately, it was only by questioning the conventional rules of cryptography and finding some of them “stupid” that Diffie made his breakthroughs. A case in point: the belief that the workings of a secure cryptosystem had to be treated with utmost secrecy. That might have held true for military organisations, but in the computer age, that didn’t make sense. There would be unlimited users who needed a system for privacy; obviously, such a system would have to be distributed so widely that potential crackers would have no trouble getting their hands on it and would have plenty of opportunity to practice attacking it. Instead, the secrecy had to rest somewhere else in the system.

The issue of privacy, boiled down for Whit Diffie to: How do you deal with a trustworthy person in the midst of a world full of untrustworthy people?

Diffie also believed in what he called “a decentralised view of authority”. By creating the proper cryptographic tools, he felt, you could solve the problem – by transferring the data protection from a disinterested third party to the actual user, the one whose privacy was actually at risk.

And this, in my view, applies not only to privacy and cryptographic tools but also to all the other tools that have made the web social and empowering to the individual. To that end, I want to look for ways to build tools that transfer the the data created by the individual in pursuit of his own goals (whether it involves conversations, relationships or transactions) from an abusive or exploitative party (vendor, platform and potentially any third party) to the actual user, the one who benefits from the data, communication and relationships directly.

Whit Diffie’s challenging of accepted rules, whether Doctor of Science or not, has been an inspiration to me, which couldn’t have come at a better time as I see several assumptions about the web ripe for such challenge…

Here are more photos from the event.

Whit Diffie in Holloway Chapel

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One Response to “Whit Diffie’s honorary doctorate at Holloway College”


  1. Julia
    on Oct 29th, 2008
    @ 0:14 am

    Holloway College is a great school.

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