Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ronald Rivest recently gave a speech discussing the history of the RSA cryptographic system, which is currently used to secure most financial transactions and communications over the Internet. The system, which Rivest helped develop with colleagues Adi Shamir and Len Adleman in 1977, relies on the fact that it is very hard to determine the prime factors of a large number. However, Rivest notes that it has not been shown mathematically that such factorization is necessarily difficult.
"Factoring could turn out to be easy, maybe someone here will find the method," he says. If that happens, Rivest says several other current methods for secure encryption could be quickly adopted.
He notes that RSA has led to spinoff technologies, such as the use of digital signatures to authenticate the identify of Web sites. Rivest says future cryptographic technologies could lead to applications in secure micropayment and voting systems. He believes the study of cryptography is fascinating because it unites a wide variety of disciplines. "It's like the Middle East of research, because everything goes through it," Rivest says.
From MIT News
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