the fascinating history of end-to-end encryption: 10 cryptography and encryption pioneers you may not know

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A comprehensive history of encryption would start thousands of years ago — when the ancient Spartans began using a device called a scytale to share information on the battlefield.

But let’s fast-forward a bit to the modern history of cryptography and encryption. These 10 pioneers helped make possible the end-to-end encryption that protects your data all across the web (including on illumy).

For more on the encryption protocols we use, read through to the bottom of the post.

Giovan Battista Bellaso: devised the first cipher with a shared encryption key

During the Italian Renaissance, many scholars were trying to make their correspondence more secure. Bellaso was the first to utilize a key: an agreed-upon countersign that could encrypt and decrypt text.

Bellaso’s 1553 book, La Cifra del Sig. Giovan Battista Bellaso, created a cipher so strong that it was seen as unbreakable for the next 400 years.

Arthur Scherbius: brought advanced encryption to commercial use

The early 1900s saw a flurry of activity in the encryption space. Around the same time, American Edward Hebern, Swede Arvid Damm, Dutchman Hugo Koch, and German Arthur Scherbius invented rotor machines that mechanically encrypted data.

But of the four, Scherbius might be the most relevant today. His Enigma cypher machine was successfully commercialized in the 1920s and adopted by the German military. Alan Turing later cracked Enigma, helping to turn the tide of WWII.

Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman: theorized public-key cryptography in 1976

Diffie and Hellman laid the groundwork for the encrypted web. Their “New Directions in Cryptography” paper, published in 1976, invented public key cryptography.

What was revolutionary about public key infrastructure is that it secured information with two sets of keys: one public and one private. The public one encrypts data sent to you. The private one, which lives only on your individual device, decrypts it.

PKI sounds simple, but behind it is a lot of hard math. Diffie and Hellman did the work — with their efforts winning them the Turing Prize, computing’s biggest honor, in 2016.

Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman: invented the RSA protocol in 1977

A bit like Arthur Scherbius in the 1920s, Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman are notable for bringing encryption tech to the commercial marketplace.

Inspired by Diffie and Hellman’s work, the three MIT scientists developed an algorithm that brought encryption out of academia and into the wider world. Their method, RSA, took its name from their initials.

RSA was introduced in 1977 and patented in 1983. It’s still in use today in such places as VPNs for secure web browsing.

Neal Koblitz and Victor S. Miller: independently proposed a new and better encryption standard in 1984

While RSA was revolutionary for its time, it has some limitations. To be secure, RSA keys must be long. And RSA’s design can make it vulnerable to attacks by powerful computers.

Two mathematicians, working independently, foresaw the fragility of RSA back in the Eighties. Neal Koblitz and Victor Miller developed an alternative called elliptic curve cryptography, or ECC.

The concept was so advanced that it didn’t enter commercial use until the early 2000s. Its great innovation: making keys shorter so as to reduce compute and network overhead.

Phil Zimmermann: created the PGP protocol in 1991

RSA and ECC are mostly used in the backend of the web. The Pretty Good Privacy protocol, on the other hand, brought encryption to the masses.

“PGP empowers people to take their privacy into their own hands,” inventor Phil Zimmermann says.

First used to secure email, PGP made public key encryption much faster with data compression. It’s still in use today in some email programs.

Of course, the history of encryption doesn’t end in the Nineties. The world has moved away from PGP to ECC-based encryption protocols like those envisioned by Koblitz and Miller.

It’s one of these that we employ at illumy. Your on-net illumy messages are fully end-to-end encrypted — meaning we can’t see them. Once they’re deleted, they’re gone for good.

Encrypted email is a tougher nut to crack, because email has to traverse the public internet. But rest assured: in the time your emails are on our servers, they’re encrypted as well.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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