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The Encryption Pioneer Who Was Written Out of History 238

Posted by samzenpus
from the who-now? dept.
nk497 writes "Clifford Cocks is one of three British men who developed an encryption system while working for the UK government in the early 1970s, but was forced to keep the innovation quiet for national security reasons. Just a few years later, their Public Encryption Key was developed separately by US researchers at Stanford and MIT, and eventually evolved into the RSA encryption algorithm, which now secures billions of transactions on the internet every day. 'The first I knew about [the US discovery] was when I read about it in Scientific American. I opened it one lunchtime and saw a description and thought, "Ah, that's what we did,"' he said. 'You don't go into the business to get external credit and recognition — quite the opposite. Quite honestly, the main reaction was one of complete surprise that this had actually been discovered outside.' The UK trio have now won recognition for their accomplishment in the form of the Milestone Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers."
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The Encryption Pioneer Who Was Written Out of History

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  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @04:57AM (#33822016)

    The Brits are pretty amazing. It's like they are a step ahead of everyone in this field. I imagine not brushing your teeth gives you a few minutes extra every day, and that adds up.

    I'm kidding of course. But the British, maybe because of brains, maybe because of necessity, have been pushing the boundaries of computation for almost two hundred years. We owe a great debt of gratitude towards them.

    But they were also kind of dicks about that whole independence thing. So it all evens out.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      ...But they were also kind of dicks about that whole independence thing. So it all evens out.

      You know, Americans say that about the Brits, but look to your neighbour to the North.
      Rather than going through a bloody and violent war for independence, we just kinda sat around for a while. Eventually, the Brits forgot about us, we did our own thing, and we got some independence, we waited around some more, signed some papers, then got some more independence. No dickery at all. All I can really say about the accusations of one side being a dick is, "pot, meet kettle"

      • by AccUser (191555)

        I don't think that the British forgot about the guys in the North - they were too busy fighting the French because of the guys in the North.

      • by jareth-0205 (525594) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:33AM (#33822426) Homepage

        Intriguingly (I think atleast), it is constitutionally impossible for the British government to grant independence to Canada, because it's not possible for one government to do something irreversible that the the next government can't undo. So, technically, the UK must still regard Canada as a colony...

        • by rpjs (126615) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:36AM (#33822446)

          Well yes, Parliament cannot bind its successors, but that could apply just as well to recognising *US* independence.

          What might be the theoretical legal situation isn't always compatible with the real world situation. Sensible people defer to the real world.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by delinear (991444)
            Indeed, the new coalition coming to power might have wished they could undo some of the events set in place by the previous government, getting into a costly war nobody wanted and making us a massive terrorist target into the bargain, for instance. I don't see how giving a country independence would be any different - if the new government wanted to undo that change they'd have to re-conquer said country, not easy but still not exactly binding or impossible.
        • by chrb (1083577)

          it is constitutionally impossible for the British government to grant independence to Canada

          History [wikipedia.org] begs [wikipedia.org] to [wikipedia.org] differ. [wikipedia.org]

        • by highways (1382025)

          > Intriguingly (I think atleast), it is constitutionally impossible for the British government to grant independence to Canada, because it's not possible for one government to do something irreversible that the the next government can't undo. So, technically, the UK must still regard Canada as a colony...

          Even Australia [wikipedia.org] is legally separate from Britian, despite the "Queen of Australia" being the same person as the "Queen of England".

          Only one step to go before we finish the job...

          • Only one step to go before we finish the job...

            Oh christ I wish we'd hurry up. Its bloody embarrassing what with our official religion and all the sucking up to ER which goes on.

        • Well these are the people who's law is capable of declaring the landholdings of indigenous people to simply not exist. They didn't just ignore the issue or let their hit men clear the place out. They actually had a law to say that the place was empty when it clearly was not.

          So clearly it can be hacked to say what they want it to say.

        • What you're saying cannot be correct, otherwise any international treaty between countries would be non-binding, and I'm pretty sure the UK has entered into many binding international treaties over the past couple of centuries.
          • by jabuzz (182671)

            Go read up on the contorted legal stuff that went on in the EEC treaty of 1974. In short they are not binding.

        • It didn't the Canada Act 1982 it gave them "Patriation" which meant that they were totally self governing ....

        • by Angostura (703910)

          And that's why India is still part of the British Empire and why we didn't hand Hong Kong back a few years ago.

      • by rpjs (126615)

        We were less dicks with you precisely because the Americans won, and we realised that being less dickish was more likely to keep the remaining colonies in the Empire.

        Although that was a relative thing of course: we carried on being dickish for a lot longer where the colonies were mostly inhabited by brown or black people, sad to admit.

        • by Viol8 (599362)

          You self hate all you want - some of us are quite proud of the empire and what it did.

          • Uh, that sort of statement is probably narrow minded and ignores a lot of really bad shit that went down. I mean, sure the british built some railroad and canals in India, but they also gave birth to the East India Company [wikipedia.org]. Who did a lot of really bad shit. I mean, the opium wars with China? There's no way you can be proud of that and still be a good person.

            So there's a lot of history there and a lot of it's really fucked up. You could say something like the British did more good then bad during the heigh
      • by chrb (1083577)

        You know, Americans say that about the Brits, but look to your neighbour to the North. Rather than going through a bloody and violent war for independence, we just kinda sat around for a while.

        Not just Canadians: Ghandi [wikipedia.org] and his followers gained independence for India through entirely non-violent protest.

        • by highways (1382025)

          You know, Americans say that about the Brits, but look to your neighbour to the North. Rather than going through a bloody and violent war for independence, we just kinda sat around for a while.

          And Australians did it with a vote [wikipedia.org], not a war.

          • Different circumstances...

            American Colonies: We're becoming our own country!
            Britain: Bloody hell, you're not!
            [war ensues]

            About 125 years later after several other wars and colonies have fled...

            Australian Territories: We're becoming our own country!
            Britain: Awww, piss off.

            Plus, the empire had other pressing things to worry with at the time with Australia, what with the flagging health of their Queen and all.

          • by lazybeam (162300)

            And no-one knew our first Prime Minister until the TV ad told us!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        that's like admiring the guy who still lives in his parent's basement in his 40s, and keeps going "mum, can i have my own life now?" "no!" "yes queen mum" "go do the garbage!" "yes queen mum"

        rather than the guy who at age 15 says "fuck you, you old bitch, you don't tell me what to do!" "you don't talk to your mother like that!" "bitch bitch bitch fuck you i hate you i'm out of here!"

        well, now that i put it that way, both canada and the usa suck

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by antifoidulus (807088)
        Actually no, the reason that the UK gave Canada it's independence is because it didn't want to be embroiled in yet another conflict with the United States. The US tried to invade Canada twice, during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and even though they got their asses kicked both times, so it was obvious that they wanted it. And in 1867 they finally had an excuse to take it again, the US was fresh out of the civil war and the Union government was very pissed at the UK for giving large amounts of
    • by nacturation (646836) * <nacturation.gmail@com> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:31AM (#33822190) Journal

      But they were also kind of dicks about that whole independence thing. So it all evens out.

      Dicks? Well, I guess that explains why a Mr. Cocks invented pubic encryption, something used by nerds ever since.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:32AM (#33822198)

      We owe a great debt of gratitude towards them.

      But in this case, it's like they didn't even exist. Closed research doesn't push man forward. Quite the opposite, imo.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      "boundaries of computation" in the UK?
      GCHQ ~had Red, Blue and Colorob as post ww2 efforts around 1948-1951 till 1961.
      eg. 1951 the UK's Oedipus had high speed storage via drum memory 10000 15 character phrases.
      The NSA around this time had Atlas 1 1950, (parallel, drum memory), Atlas 2 1953 (parallel, core memory).
      1958 Solo (transistors), 1962 Harvest (fully automated tape library). Harvest influenced ~IBM System 360.
      GCHQ was mostly IBM (1960's IBM System 360, 700's) , Honeywell, Cray (1977) and now
    • by donscarletti (569232) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:20AM (#33822384)

      But they were also kind of dicks about that whole independence thing. So it all evens out.

      Former colonies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand were given full, constitutional independence when they had the infrastructure to support self-governance. American independence was not unanimously supported in the thirteen colonies of the day, however this was suppressed when revolutionaries used their largely French government issued weapons to intimidate, disenfranchise and suppress so called "tories". While no on can claim that America is backward or undeveloped today, the lives of the native Americans, the blacks and the poor all suffered under America's hard line expansionism and slightly regressive social policies during the early nineteenth century. While American political philosophy has evolved to justify that the winners of that war were unquestionably right, as all victors claim to be, it was a complex issue in its day and remains so.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Couple issues. Unanimous supports is never a requirement for independence otherwise no British colony would ever be independent today.

        Your concern over Blacks, poor, and native Americans is misplaced. Those minorities suffered equally under the heel of British colonists then they did under American independents.

        The idea that somehow the British empire wanted to keep the 13 colonies in oder to improve the lives of poor, Blacks, and Native Americans is revisionist history at best.

        • by nedlohs (1335013) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @09:24AM (#33823602)

          The claim that "the British empire wanted to keep the 13 colonies in oder to improve the lives of poor, Blacks, and Native Americans" was never made, so ascribing it to someone else seems just a little ridiculous.

          Britain abolished slavery decades before the United States, so clearly there's one group who would have been better off under British rule.

          • by Machtyn (759119)
            Slavery was abolished in the Constitution. But because the South would have none of it, the language was removed. It took us quite a number of years and a civil war (which was over other issues initially) to abolish slavery.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by DragonWriter (970822)

            Britain abolished slavery decades before the United States, so clearly there's one group who would have been better off under British rule.

            Had Britain kept the colonies that became the United States, and thus had the Southern, slave-driven plantation economy as a key part of its economy, it might well not have abolished slavery as early as it did. And, even had it tried to, local resistance to the idea would probably have resulted in a war much like the Civil War -- which colonies that, in our reality, didn

    • by Nursie (632944)

      "But the British, maybe because of brains, maybe because of necessity, have been pushing the boundaries of computation for almost two hundred years. We owe a great debt of gratitude towards them."

      Sure, we have indeed.

      It might have been more helpful if we hadn't hidden all these advances under a rock and denied all knowledge of them for 40 or 50 years though eh?

    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      And most of their real work was done in secret, which means that many inventions may have been preceded by inventions for covert ops.

      No wonder that James Bond had all those gadgets.

    • by jambox (1015589)
      Cocks, not dicks!
    • by hcpxvi (773888)
      I imagine not brushing your teeth gives you a few minutes extra every day, and that adds up.
      That slur is common, but is very out of date. British dentists have persuaded an entire generation to clean their teeth with Fluoride toothpaste. As a result, there is now so little of the old drilling, filling and extracting work to be done that most dentists are desperately trying to get their patients interested in botox injections, getting their teeth bleached to an un-natural #ffffff white and so forth, just t
    • > But they were also kind of dicks about that whole independence thing. So it all evens out.

      And Americans were then The Terrorists(TM). So I guess, you're right.

    • by Urza9814 (883915)

      I wouldn't so much say it's a British thing as much as a government thing. The NSA is pretty far ahead of academics with encryption technology too.

      "It took the academic community two decades to figure out that the NSA "tweaks" actually improved the security of DES. This means that back in the '70s, the National Security Agency was two decades ahead of the state of the art."
      (from http://news.cnet.com/Saluting-the-data-encryption-legacy/2010-1029_3-5381232.html [cnet.com])

  • by Allnighte (1794642) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:02AM (#33822046)
    Maybe he should have protected his work. Perhaps with some kind of ... encryption?
  • by Asic Eng (193332) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:07AM (#33822078)
    It's really not a milestone for anything if nobody can build on your results. It's certainly a great achievement to come up with an approach like that. However it contributes nothing to science if you don't publish it - the contribution was made by others. They weren't written out of history - they opted out.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Peeteriz (821290)

      True, if you hide the research results, then you don't benefit the society and don't deserve the credit. The value is not in ideas themselves, but in their mass availability.

      • by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:33AM (#33822424)

        That seems to be exactly Cocks' stance, that it's an occupational hazard of doing secret work that other people will independently invent the same thing and you can't claim credit.

      • That's not logical, nor necessarily true. Just because _you_ don't know about research, doesn't mean it's not being put to use in a way that may benefit you. An awful lot of research at places like GCHQ and the NSA is conducted out of sight of the communities it is intended to protect.

        You don't, after all, need to know the research behind a secure government communications channel, but you may well benefit (even unknowingly) from having a government that is less vulnerable to espionage.

        At least, that's the

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by thePig (964303)

      It need not be even their decision (eventhough here it is) - you create a product which is useful for the military, and say you try to patent it - for selling it - as per the official secrets act, the govt can take this idea/product and use it - and ask the implementor not to mention to anyone. From then on the guy cannot even publish it.
      The govt does not give out proper compensation too. So it is not always voluntary.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by houghi (78078)

      It also proves that identical ideas can lead to identical solutions. This means that 'who came up with the first idea should get the patent' is flawed.

  • Moe: Phone call for C. Cocks. C Cocks? Anyone?
    • by petaflop (682818)

      Nearly. I think the canonical form for this name would be:

      Phone call for C. Cocks. I wanna C Cocks? Anyone?

  • The History repeats, Columbus announce his discover. The US Researchers published their work. But someone was there before.
    Who is "The Discoverer"?

  • You Got Turing'd (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mike260 (224212) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:43AM (#33822250)

    Dude does groundbreaking work, work gets suppressed by British government for reasons of national security, dude gets screwed.
    At least this guy didn't then get force-fed oestrogen by the government until he killed himself, which is something I suppose.

  • by AHuxley (892839) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:43AM (#33822254) Homepage Journal
    GCHQ was ready to talk of this issue and had all the press like 'kits' ready for a nice PR peek in 1984.
    Then came the Peter Writes's Spycatcher book.
    Thatcher was destroying any trace of union activity within the GCHQ at the time to, so the PKE release was dropped until 1997.
    In the 1970's the NSA and GCHQ did not know what to do with it.
    With "no" internet, one idea floated was nuke go codes.
    The more interesting issue was the 1985 quadripartite (UK, US, German, French) to keep DES open to the NSA/GCHQ but safe from commercial rivals/hackers.
    PKE was fought later with Clipper, key recovery, key escrow.
  • by Byzantine (85549) <(carson) (at) (sdf.lonestar.org)> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:59AM (#33822560) Homepage Journal

    It's a good thing the Official Secrets Act prevented this from being news at the time. I'm not sure reporters could have kept a straight face reporting on the "Cocks Algorithm."

  • Just that every time the editor for their papers saw the list of names at the top with "C. Cocks" in it they always thought it was a childish prank and erased his name.

    To this day every time he gets pulled over the cops say "Come on buddy, your REAL ID this time".

  • by Dwonis (52652) * on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:16AM (#33822980)
    Why should anyone get recognition if they keep their discovery a secret?
  • by exolete (1430355) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:24AM (#33823036) Homepage

    Knuth's TAOCP, Volume 2, Third Edition, Page 407:

    "Historical note: It was revealed in 1998 that Clifford Cocks had considered encoding messages by the transformation $x^{pq} mod pq$ already in 1973, but his work was kept secret".

    And that feels like the correct amount of recognition.

  • it leads to people acting on peer pressure. we try to discourage that sort of thing.

  • by fwice (841569) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @09:33AM (#33823694)

    Much of Cocks' work is documented in Simon Singh's fantastic treatise on cryptography and stenography through history, 'The Code Book'. This includes thoughts by Cocks' and James Ellis on the secrecy of their work, and their comfort at that -- they knew what they were getting into. Especially telling are Ellis' quotes -- as he died ~1 month before the public announcement was made...

  • by Maudib (223520) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @10:57AM (#33824734)

    Hardly written out of history. As I recall he got a whole chapter in "The Code Book" . I would bet that most people familiar with RSA or Diffie Helman have read that.

The flow chart is a most thoroughly oversold piece of program documentation. -- Frederick Brooks, "The Mythical Man Month"

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