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$1M Turing Award Goes to Pioneers of Internet Encryption

Cryptographer Whitfield Diffie Explains the Greatest Threats to Our Security 2:55

This year's $1 million A.M. Turing Award goes to a pair of cryptographers whose ideas helped make the Internet possible. Both men say giving governments control over encrypted communications puts everyone at risk.

Whitfield Diffie, 71, a former chief security officer of Sun Microsystems, and Martin Hellman, 70, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University, introduced the ideas of public-key cryptography and digital signatures back in 1976. The concepts now secure all kinds of data, from online communications and financial transactions to Internet-connected infrastructure like power plants.

The honor was announced Tuesday, the same day that FBI Director James Comey and Apple's top lawyer appealed to Congress for help as the government seeks to force the technology company to hack into a terrorist's iPhone.

Read More: For Renowned Cryptographer, Encryption Remains as Important as Ever

Before their innovations, electronic communications mainly involved friends talking to friends, and governments tightly controlled encryption technology. The advent of public keys and digital certification enabled the private sector to make it possible for anyone to talk to anyone.

Diffie sees the fight with Apple as just one small move in a much bigger government attempt to grab power.

"I think the people who will control the machines will control the world of the future," Diffie said. "Therefore, everyone today is jockeying for their position with those machines, and this is just one aspect of that."

Encrypted Data: Simple Idea, Complex Math 1:41

Hellman told the AP that he sympathizes with efforts to investigate the attack, at least partly inspired by the Islamic State group, in which a couple killed 14 people before dying in a gun battle with police. But he said giving in to the FBI would unleash "huge" consequences.

Their award, from the Association for Computing Machinery and mostly funded by Google Inc., is named for British mathematician Alan Turing, and is one of the most prestigious prizes in computing.

Read More: Why Are Apple and the FBI Battling Over an iPhone?