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Pioneers in Tech: Taher Elgamal, father of SSL

Pioneers in Tech: Taher Elgamal, father of SSL

Since 2017, April has been recognized as Arab American Heritage Month, with the Biden administration recognizing the heritage month for the first time at the federal level in 2022. Chances are you have purchased something online in the past week. The security that makes such transactions possible was originally developed by an Arab American technology pioneer—Taher Elgamal, known as the “father of SSL.”

Born in Egypt, Elgamal immigrated to the United States after graduating from Cairo University in 1997. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University, where A.M. Turing Award recipient and cryptography pioneer Martin Hellman was his dissertation advisor. Elgamal’s paper “A public key cryptosystem and a signature scheme based on discrete logarithms” has been referenced more than 11,400 times and is considered a cryptosecurity classic.

While working at Netscape Communications in the mid-1990s, Elgamal was a leading developer of secure socket layer, or SSL, technology. The SSL protocol allows web clients and web servers to connect securely over the internet. Initially SSL was proprietary to Netscape, but Netscape decided to make it available to other companies. Doing so helped expand Netscape’s product space, as well as establish SSL as the document cryptosecurity protocol of its day.

Eventually, a safer system emerged in Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol. The Internet Engineering Task Force stopped recommending use of SSL in 2015. Still, the protocol lives on, especially in legacy systems. What will never change is foresight of Elgamal in the early development of SSL, which has rightfully earned him the moniker “father of SSL.” Elgamal received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 from the RSA Conference, was recognized by the Marconi Society in 2019, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2022.

Photo: Virrage Images / Shutterstock

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