If you have ever paid for anything online, you owe professors Shafi Goldwater and Silvio Micali at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a debt of thanks. Back in the 1980s the two began exploring cryptographic techniques to keep data secure and safe in an online world. Their work led to creating the standards for Web security that we depend on today. This week it was announced that their work has earned them the coveted A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), an honor that has been called "the Nobel Prize in computing."
As ACM puts it, the professors are being honored for their "transformative work that laid the complexity-theoretic foundations for the science of cryptography, and in the process pioneered new methods for efficient verification of mathematical proofs in complexity theory." The award, which comes with a $250,000 prize, will be officially presented this June at a ceremony in San Francisco.
Goldwasser and Micali told The Boston Globe that mathematics has enabled the Internet and all that has come with it. "These are the building blocks," Goldwasser said. "Mathematics, which is considered a dry thing, can enable our digital society."
Vinton Cerf, current ACM president and himself considered one of the "fathers of the Internet," praised the pair. "The encryption schemes running in today's browsers meet their notions of security," he said in a prepared release. "The method of encrypting credit card numbers when shopping on the Internet also meets their test. We are indebted to these recipients for their innovative approaches to ensuring security in the digital age."
"I am very proud to have won the Turing Award,” Goldwasser said in a release from MIT. "Our work was very unconventional at the time. We were graduate students and let our imagination run free. Winning the award is further testimony to the fact that the cryptographic and complexity theoretic community embraced these ideas in the last 30 years."
Micali added that they took risk in their early work as graduate students, but they also "received precious encouragement from exceptional mentors. I am also proud to see how far others have advanced our initial work."
The Turing Award, which has gone to some of computing's top minds since 1966, is named after Alan Mathison Turing (1912–1954), the British mathematician who has been described as the "father" of computer science. His contributions to modern computing include the formalized concepts of algorithms and computation, as well as the Turing Machine, one of the earliest computing devices. Turing also served as a code breaker for the British government during World War II. Much of his work in this arena was considered so valuable that it was kept secret for decades after this death. He committed suicide at the age of 41 after he was arrested and prosecuted for being a homosexual.