The award was announced at the faculty meeting on Wednesday, May 19. Established in 1971 as a tribute to MIT's 10th president, the Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishment by an MIT faculty member. The winner is asked to deliver a lecture in the spring term.
Rivest, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is known for his pioneering work in the field of cryptography, computer and network security.
“He is one of the founding fathers of modern cryptography, especially of public key cryptography and digital signature methods,” said Alan Oppenheim, the Ford Professor of Engineering in EECS and chair of the Killian Award selection committee, reading from the award citation. “It was the work of Professor Rivest and his colleagues Leonard Adelman and Adi Shamir that led to the design of a public key system, now known universally as the RSA system after its inventors, that was robust to sophisticated attack. The RSA code is a wonderful example of elegant and abstract theory eventually having immense practical impact.”
Public-key cryptography is a technology that allows users to communicate securely and secretly over an insecure channel without having to agree upon a shared secret key beforehand. By utilizing mathematical functions that are easy to compute but difficult to invert, messages can be encrypted and sent over a public channel with digital signatures attached, but only the intended recipient has the information to decrypt the message. While the code for RSA is deceptively simple, it has not been broken in the more than four decades since its invention and plays a critical role in the widespread use and success of the Internet and Internet-based commerce.
“I was very surprised and feel very honored to receive this award, which is certainly one of the most prestigious that MIT offers,” said Rivest. “The previous awardees form a tremendously impressive group. I hope that I can inspire others, as they have inspired many.”
A native of Niskayuna, N.Y., Rivest attended Yale University, where he earned a BS in mathematics in 1969. After receiving his PhD in computer science from Stanford in 1974, he accepted an offer to join the faculty at MIT. It was at MIT where he met Adleman and Shamir, who would become his partners in solving the puzzle of public-key cryptography. The team developed its system in 1977 and founded RSA Data Security in 1983. RSA was acquired in 1996 by Security Dynamics, which in turn was acquired by EMC in 2006.
As the active founder of two of the most successful Internet security companies, RSA Security and VeriSign Inc., Rivest’s contributions to the impact of RSA have moved from deep fundamental inquiry to practical development and technology transfer. As noted in one of the Killian Award nomination letters, “Ron has the cultural background required to perceive the larger influence of scientific innovation, and the moral strength, energy and eloquence necessary to drive it towards its proper use.”
In addition to his work in cryptography and security, Rivest has made important contributions in many other areas of computer science, including computer-aided design of integrated circuits, data structures and computer algorithms. He is acknowledged as an early contributor to the field of machine learning.
Rivest is also known as a dedicated mentor and educator. His textbook Introduction to Algorithms (MIT Press and McGraw-Hill, 1990), co-authored with Thomas Cormen and Charles Leiserson, his fellow MIT professors of computer science, grew out of his undergraduate and graduate courses on computer algorithms. It is currently the second-most-cited reference in all of computer science.
Among Rivest’s many contributions at MIT have been his guidance, wisdom and leadership as co-chair of the committee for the re-organization of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Computer Science. The new combined laboratory, CSAIL, is now the largest laboratory on the MIT campus. Rivest is a member of the lab’s Theory of Computation Group and a founder of its Cryptography and Information Security Group.