Article posted: May 03, 2017

By Nick Budden, Partner and Security Expert at Versasec

A recent article pointed out Public Key Cryptography (PKI), created by researchers at Stanford University in 1977, is celebrating its 40th birthday. The findings of the Stanford team were nearly silenced by a US government agency at the time, which viewed this research as "legally equivalent to exporting nuclear arms to a hostile foreign power."

But why did the US think that sharing PKI research was so damaging to national security?

For starters, things were a lot different in 1977 - particularly around computing. The US government felt cryptography, the study of sending secret messages, had little value beyond uses for spies and felons. The government felt threatened that Stanford researchers were giving away a blueprint to help its enemies encode messages that would then be impossible to decrypt.

The researchers prevailed, winning the right to present their findings and thus giving birth to the PKI industry. The mathematics for PKI are complicated and generally include prime numbers multiplied together to create a very large "semi-prime" number, one divisible only by two prime numbers. It's very tough to crack. Public key cryptography exploits this difference. For example, an individual may publish his semi-prime number - his public key - for anyone to view. And the RSA algorithm allows others to encrypt messages with that number, in a manner that can be decrypted only by someone who knows the two prime numbers that produced it.

The Stanford researchers were visionaries in realizing PKI was more than just a technology for spies. Over the next four decades, PKI was woven into security solutions for banking, websites, apps for securing credit card details.

PKI remains vital in deploying multifactor authentication technologies today, enabling access to virtual private networks, buildings, networks, printers and other technologies that house sensitive corporate data only to authorized users.

Versasec CEO Joakim Thorén was recently interviewed by CSO Magazine Reporter David Geer on breakthroughs in multifactor identification technologies, which use factors such as "something you know," "something you have," "something you are," and "your context." Mr. Thorén goes on to discuss advances in PKI encryption, as well as other multifactor identification in the CSO Magazine article. The benefits of PKI and other multifactor authentication methods are more important today than ever. Who knew that the US government almost prevented its creation 40 years ago?

To learn more about how Versasec is managing the latest multifactor identities, visit

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