Internet shopping started four decades ago – by British spies

October 6, 2010 | by | 0 Comments

Three British spooks have finally been honoured for starting the internet shopping phenomenon – FOUR decades ago.

Intelligence agents Clifford Cocks, Malcolm Williamson and the late James Ellis developed ‘public-key cryptography’ for military computer systems in the early 1970s.

Their ingenious breakthrough enabled online transactions to take place securely and privately – which was previously thought impossible without exchanging a virtual ‘key’.

They developed the technology while working at the secretive Government spy base GCHQ in Cheltenham, Glos.

It was originally intended for intelligence communications but became an important step forward with the expansion of the world wide web.

Millions of people around the world now use the secure communication online, shown by the padlock symbol in the corner of computer screens during financial transaction.

Intelligence bosses had ordered the information be classified top-secret in the interests of national security.

But their efforts have now been officially recognised with the prestigious 100th Milestone Award from The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Yesterday proud Clifford Cocks, who still lives in Cheltenham, said: ”It is great to see how widespread and significant the use of public key cryptography has become.

”I am honoured that the IEEE have decided to recognise its discovery at Cheltenham.

”James Ellis would have been especially gratified to know that his work is to receive such acknowledgement.”

The revolutionary cryptography technique saw the trio attempt to find a way to transfer information privately between two computers without it being hacked into.

They realised that every time a user wanted secure information from another machine, all they had to do was send it a virtual padlock.

The padlock would then be locked onto the information they required and sent back to the them.

Only they would hold the private key to unlock the padlock – keeping the information completely secure.

Their leading principle was that people could distribute as many personalised padlocks to others as they liked because only their machine held the private key.

Each private key is a complex code consisting of prime numbers.

Public key cryptography is now used every time a sale takes place on the internet to keep details secret, such as Paypal and credit card transactions.

The trio’s efforts went unrecognised until 1997, when their achievement was finally declassified and made public.

Until then a group of researchers from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, had been credited with the discovery.

James Ellis died shortly before he could enjoy public recognition, aged 73 in 1997.

But on Monday a plaque was unveiled at GCHQ and a ceremony took place inside its Pittville Pump Room, to mark the achievement.

Clifford Cocks, James Ellis’s widow and members of the IEEE attended the event.

Malcolm Williamson now lives in America.

The plaque reads: ”At GCHQ, by 1975 James Ellis had proved that a symmetric secret-key system is unnecessary and Clifford Cocks with Malcolm Williamson showed how such ‘public-key cryptography’ could be achieved.

”Until then it was believed that secure communication was impossible without exchange of a secret key, with key distribution as a major impediment.

”With these discoveries the essential principles were known but were kept secret until 1997.”

A spokesman for GCHQ said: ”We are proud that the IEEE has awarded its prestigious 100th Milestone award to Clifford Cocks, James Ellis and Malcolm Williamson for the development of public key cryptography.

”It was one of the most important developments in secure communication and laid the groundwork for the digital revolution.”

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