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November 30, 2003
Ralph Merkle, Distinguished Professor of Computing & Director of the Georgia Institute of Technology Information Security Center, knows his contributions to the development of public key cryptography could have received more attention.
After all, two other researchers -- Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman -- received the prestigious Marconi Foundation award in 2000 for advancing PKI technology, which paved the way for virtually every secure online transaction. But Merkle accepts that notoriety is fickle and understands that his well-documented contributions are known to anyone truly interested in infosecurity. Most Stanford University patents for public keys credit his work, and Merkle's research, which he began in the early 1970s, is cited in dozens of cryptography books.
"The awareness of people's specific contributions in highly technical areas is often highly variable," Merkle says. "I actually feel quite fortunate to have as high a level of recognition as I have had. Looking at it objectively, quite a few people in the industry are aware of my contributions."
One reason why Merkle's work may have been somewhat overlooked is that he hasn't devoted his entire career to infosecurity. For years, he devoted most of his attention to cutting-edge nanotechnology research, most recently with a startup in Dallas. He did, however, continue some infosecurity work on the side.
When the Georgia Institute of Technology called with an offer to take over its Information Security Center, Merkle knew the time had come to focus more on infosecurity.
"Interest in computer security is driven by events, and the number of events is increasing dramatically," he says. "That means that resources are now available that weren't 10 or 20 years ago. When there were no resources, working on the problem was a lot less interesting. Now that there's been this huge shift, it makes the whole thing a lot more fun."
Rich Demillo, the dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, says that as soon as Merkle surfaced as a candidate, the university moved to land him. And while not all of his students know of his seminal contributions to the field, they quickly realize he has a lot to offer.
"He's such an understated guy," Demillo says. "But the students catch on real quick. They can tell right away there's a lot of substance there."
Information Security Magazine Article