In our next segment, Taher discusses his cryptography background and how he coverted it into a professional career.
SM: What did you focus on for your PhD work that led you into your professional career? TE: I developed this signature scheme … The Elgamal crypto scheme – of course I did not give it that name. I believe Jim Omura was the first person who called it after me. He was at UCLA and was starting a company called Cylink at the time. He was trying to lobby the government to establish a public key crypto scheme. The government did not want to license a patented product at the time. When my scheme was published some people in the government found it and worked on it and put out a NIST standard, a government standard, based on that. It is called DSS. I could not patent that algorithm because I was a foreign graduate student. The options I had as a foreign graduate student to be able to patent in cryptography, I would have had to stay a student until the patent was issued.
Instead, I chose to publish it, and graduate. Of course it became public, and hit the internet, and a lot of people have done variations on it. A friend of mine has recently counted and informed me that tens of thousands of papers have been written on this study.
SM: Is that why it spawned a lot of innovation? TE: Probably because it was free. In hindsight it was the right thing to do, but I did not intentionally do it.
SM: Yes and no. If you were able to patent it you could have built a company out of it. TE: Perhaps, but at the time it took RSA ten years to build a successful business off of a cryptology patent.
SM: You are saying it is not a slam dunk. TE: I was actually lucky because I became very well known in that space, as well as in the government. Today I show up in meetings in the Far East and people know who I am.