Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Encryption Security United Kingdom IT

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Encryption Pioneer Who Was Written Out of History

Comments Filter:
  • 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.
  • by theheadlessrabbit (1022587) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:23AM (#33822134) Homepage Journal

    ...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 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.

  • 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 Wolfbone (668810) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @05:49AM (#33822286)

    I thought even US law said that purely mathematical algorithms couldn't be patented?

    They can't. But what is a "purely mathematical" algorithm? Can you find one which, for some reason, could never have any useful application whatsoever? The RSA algorithm wasn't patented - it's use in encrypting "messages" was.

    This is why the typical programmer argument against software patents, "But it's just math!", is futile and justifiably derided by the typical Patent Attorney. The proper (and extremely powerful) argument to use aganst software patents is an economic one.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:23AM (#33822394)
    Maybe you don't care, but he would obviously have been bound by the Official Secrets Act. Publishing his findings "so that humanity could benefit" would therefore have had some very real, negative consequences for him. The best case, I imagine, would have been losing his job. At worst, a couple of years at Her Majesty's pleasure. When was the last time you risked prison time by sharing your employer's secrets?
  • 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.

  • by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:38AM (#33822466)

    The development was made at the height of the Cold War. I imagine the secrecy had more to do with not handing a hugely robust encryption method over to perceived enemies at the height of a conflict fought through military intelligence, and that the decision was not made simply to annoy you personally.

  • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) <obsessivemathsfreak@@@eircom...net> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @06:47AM (#33822516) Homepage Journal

    The history of post-War British technology has been a long succession of failed innovations which shortly afterwards have been appropriated and successfully marketed by American companies: Jet airliners, liquid crystal displays, public key encryption, home computers, the Web, and Pop Idol. Whichever British scientists don't end up emigrating to the US outright usually end up working for the US economy anyway.

    Sadly, as a nation, the British seem not only contented with this state of affairs, but actually quite proud of their "special relationship". I blame the BBC for buying too many syndicated shows.

  • Re:Well... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chrisq (894406) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @07:18AM (#33822648)

    The history of post-War British technology has been a long succession of failed innovations which shortly afterwards have been appropriated and successfully marketed by American companies: Jet airliners, liquid crystal displays, public key encryption, home computers, the Web, and Pop Idol.

    Having them take pop-idol almost makes up for them getting all the others.

  • by houghi (78078) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @07:21AM (#33822656)

    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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2010 @07:32AM (#33822712)

    GCHQ.
    Born to loose.
    It started with America and Canada, India and even Australia gave them the flick.
    Since WW2, Radar, Computing, PKI, TFT and netbooks (Clive Sinclair) have all been lost.
    Textiles, Trains, Cars Industrial machines - gone or given over to Germany.
    ICL sold to Japanese, Transistors (GE) gone, Picture Tubes to the Dutch (Phillips) - all national interest matters lost. Rover, Vauxhill Rolls Royce -memories. Apart from Glaxo/Welcomme and Dyson Vacuum cleaners - ALL British IP and industrial capacity has been lost, climaxing recently with BP to boot. All that remains is nuclear pride - Sellafield, and a strong gay navy and Dr Who repeats.

    There is a pattern here, to a country of drunken soccer louts fueled by fish and chips and larger, all served by Pakistani settlers. That they sat on this for so long - confirms Britain is on the nose and ruled by Sir Humphrey's. If GCHQ is supposed to advance everything British, then they have been rooted by the Americans and the French.

    .

  • 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

  • by anUnhandledException (1900222) <davis.gerald@gmail . c om> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:31AM (#33823090)

    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 aminorex (141494) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:59AM (#33823344) Homepage Journal

    hey, i didnt't get force-fed estrogen either! thanks, britain!

  • Re:Well... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StillNeedMoreCoffee (123989) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @10:08AM (#33824082)

    Gifted to America? I think it was independently developed. But it seems like the Brits developed it independently a little sooner, they should have gotten credit then. Such a waste these government classification things. Holds so much science and technology back. As well as the current patent situation which fosters idea's for money not idea's for idea's and progress. I think our priorities are off with these money centric, government centric ethics.

  • 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.

  • Re:Well... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YourExperiment (1081089) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @11:11AM (#33824892)
    In other words, Brits are great at creating innovative technology, while Americans are good at exploiting it to make as much money as possible?

The meat is rotten, but the booze is holding out. Computer translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

Working...