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In general, a successful relationship is built on open communication, but in the case of famous technology couple Alice and Bob, secrets are a must.

In February 1978, the inventors of RSA encryption — Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman — published the paper “A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-key Cryptosystems” in Communications of the ASM. To make the concept of RSA encryption more manageable, they invented the characters “Alice” and “Bob” to stand in for “A” and “B” as the sender and recipient of information (e.g., “How can Bob send a private message to Alice in a public-key cryptosystem?”). It was easier for the reader to track Alice and Bob (“she” and “he” on second reference) than track all the A’s and B’s.

The nomenclature took off, and Alice and Bob became stand-ins, not only in the world of info security, but also in other disciplines. As chronicled on the website, other characters joined Alice and Bob in their adventures, including Eve (an eavesdropper), Mallory (a malicious attacker), and Trent (who is to be trusted).

Alice and Bob’s story adds new chapters

What really sparked the tech world’s imagination, however, was an after-dinner speech by John Gordon at the April 1984 Zurich Seminar on Digital Communications. In the speech, Gordon fleshed out the backstory of Alice and Bob to illustrate the power of encryption:

“So Bob is a subversive stockbroker and Alice is a two-timing speculator… Against all odds, over a noisy telephone line, tapped by the tax authorities and the secret police, Alice will happily attempt, with someone she doesn’t trust, whom she can’t hear clearly, and who is probably someone else, to fiddle her tax return and to organize a coup d’etat, while at the same time minimizing the cost of the phone call. A coding theorist is someone who doesn’t think Alice is crazy.”

Although some have observed that “Alice” and “Bob” represent a heteronormative perspective, one computer scientist wrote a compelling argument that “Alice” and “Bob” should be replaced by the Hindu mythological characters Sita and Rama (whose initials match “Sender” and “Receiver”). It seems Alice and Bob are going to make it as a couple — even if their relationship isn’t built on trust.

Photo: Laborant / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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