Whitfield Diffie, a former chief security officer of Sun Microsystems, and Martin Hellman, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University, introduced the ideas of public-key cryptography and digital signatures in 1976. The concepts are used today to secure all kinds of communications and financial transactions.
Their award, from the Association for Computing Machinery and mostly funded by Google, is named for British mathematician Alan Turing and is one of the most prestigious prizes in computing.
The honour comes amid a fight between the FBI and Apple, which is resisting government pressure to help the government hack into the iPhone of a gunman in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December.
Hellman told The Associated Press that he’s sympathetic to the plight of FBI director James Comey and those investigating the attack in which an Islamic extremist couple killed 14 people before dying in a gun battle with police.
But Hellman said giving the FBI what it wants would unleash “huge” consequences that could not be contained.
Hellman said he will sign onto one of the many “friend of the court” briefs backing Apple in the case. Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have pledged to participate as well.
Diffie also has advocated against giving “back doors” to law enforcement, co-authoring a paper with other prominent cryptographers last year that urged the US government to carefully consider the risks.