Geeks v government: The battle over public key cryptography
Two graduate students stood silently beside a lectern, listening as their professor presented their work to a conference.
Usually, the students would want the glory. And they had, just a couple of days previously. But their families talked them out of it.
A few weeks earlier, the Stanford researchers had received an unsettling letter from a shadowy US government agency. If they publicly discussed their findings, the letter said, it would be deemed legally equivalent to exporting nuclear arms to a hostile foreign power.
Stanford’s lawyer said he thought they could defend any case by citing the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But the university could cover legal costs only for professors. So the students were persuaded to keep schtum.
What was this information that US spooks considered so dangerous? Were the students proposing to read out the genetic code of smallpox or lift the lid on some shocking presidential conspiracy?
No: they were planning to give the International Symposium on Information Theory an update on their work on public key cryptography.