Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty member Ron Rivest gave Killian Lecture attendees on Feb. 8, 2011, a review of the history of cryptography including the history of code-making and code-breaking through the ages and some predictions about where the field is headed beyond current practices.
As related by the MIT News Office Feb. 15, 2011 article, Rivest, the co-creator in 1977 with MIT faculty colleagues Adi Shamir and Len Adleman of a “public key” code system which they titled RSA, suggested in his lecture that should anyone (such as a member of his audience) determine the factorization that would render the system inoperable, new systems are already available to take over and companies would quickly adjust.
RSA, first made into a company, RSA Data Security, in 1982, was ultimately sold to EMC Corporation and is currently the cryptographic system used for the vast majority of all financial transactions and secure communications over the Internety. After challenging his Killian audience, Rivest related that when he and Shamir and Adelman came up with their system, the author and mathematician Martin Gardner wrote a column about it in Scientific American and offered a $100 reward for the first person to find the prime factors of a 129-digit number he published. Rivest at the time estimated that the puzzle would take 40 quadrillion years to solve. That proved to be a bit of an overestimate, he acknowledged: It was solved 17 years later, in a group effort involving 8 months of work by 600 volunteers — and Rivest cheerfully paid up the $100.
Today, Rivest related, the whole field of cryptography has taken off, with real or potential applications in such areas as the creation of a secure micropayment system (although such a system developed by Rivest in 2001, called Peppercoin, never got off the ground). Another possible application is secure voting, such as a system that allows a voter to confirm online that his or her vote was correctly tallied, without allowing anyone else to determine which candidate was selected.
MIT News Office, Feb. 15, 2011, article by David L. Chandler: "Rivest unlocks cryptography's past, looks toward future. Public-key system has worked and made Internet commerce feasible, but new systems are ready in case flaws are found."
MIT News Office, May 19, 2010: "Rivest wins faculty’s Killian Award. MIT encryption pioneer recognized for ‘extraordinary’ contributions in computer science"
Scantegrity (a voting system developed by Ron Rivest and others and applied in a real world situation in Nov. 2009).
MIT News Office, Nov., 13, 2009, article by Larry Hardesty: "Cryptographic voting debuts. A new system for ensuring accurate election tallies, which MIT researchers helped to develop, passed its first real-world test last Tuesday."