Public Keys, One Way Functions and Hard Problems

0 Review(s)
231 Download(s)
Rate & Review

Lesson synopsis

Public KeySecurity has always been a major focus of computer science research, and with the explosion of Internet use by commerce, the need for secure transactions has taken on more urgency. Most recently, cyber-thieves demonstrated that true security on the Internet is going to require a new level of understanding of how to protect personal data, and more importantly, financial transactions. This lesson introduces two important concepts: public key encryption and one-way functions. It provides an opportunity for students to understand the underpinnings of almost all Internet security: they will come to appreciate that any lock can be eventually broken, and that theoretical computer scientists study ‘hard’ problems to lengthen the time it will take to break a lock. Note that this is not a lesson in encryption, but in how mathematics is used to secure information.

Age Levels

11 - 14 years


Introduce students to:
The concept of a public key
How the modulo function is a one-way function
How the Diffie-Hellman key exchange uses a one-way function
What computer scientists mean by ‘hard’ problems

Anticipated learner outcomes

Students will be able to
Practice creating public keys with the classic color model.
Exchange information with the Diffie-Hellman method using modulo arithmetic.
Explain why no lock can be completely secured, and that given time, any mathematical ‘lock’ can be broken.
Use exponentiation and modulo arithmetic to create cyber-keys.

Rate this lesson plan

Add new review

First computer mouse
Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart

In 1967, Douglas Engelbart applied for a patent for an "X-Y position indicator for a display system," which he and his team developed at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California. The device, a small, wooden box with two metal wheels, was nicknamed a "mouse" because a cable trailing out of the one end resembled a tail.

In addition to the first computer mouse, Engelbart’s team developed computer interface concepts that led to the GUI interface, and were integral to the development of ARPANET--the precursor to today’s Internet. Engelbart received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Oregon State University in 1948, followed by an MS in 1953 and a Ph.D. in 1955 both from the University of California, Berkeley.

Bletchley Park
Dr. Sue Black
Dr. Sue Black

Dr. Sue Black has demonstrated the power of social networking. She used Web 2.0 technologies to help raise awareness of, and critical funding for, Bletchley Park, the UK World War II center for decrypting enemy messages. She has also been an active campaigner for equality and support for women in technology fields, founding a number of online networking platforms for women technology professionals. A keen researcher, Dr. Black completed a PhD in software measurement in 2001. Her research interests focus on software quality improvements. She has recently won the PepsiCo Women's Inspiration Network award, been named Tech Hero by ITPRO magazine and was awarded the first John Ivinson Award from the British Computer Society. In 2011 Dr. Black set up The goto Foundation, a nonprofit organization which aims to make computer science more meaningful to the public, generate public excitement in the creation of software, and build a tech savvy workforce. Read Sue's blog about The goto Foundation:

Turing machine
Alan Mathison Turing
Alan Mathison Turing

Did you know that computing has been used in military espionage and has even influenced the outcome of major wars? Alan Mathison Turing designed the code breaking machine that enabled the deciphering of German communications during WWII. As per the words of Winston Churchill, this would remain the single largest contribution to victory. In addition, he laid the groundwork for visionary fields such as automatic computing engines, artificial intelligence and morphogenesis. Despite his influential work in the field of computing, Turing experienced extreme prejudice during his lifetime regarding his sexual orientation. There is no doubt that computers are ubiquitously part of our lives due to the infusion of Turing’s contributions.

Punch card from a COBOL program
Jean Sammet

Jean E. Sammet was one of the first developers and researchers in programming languages. During the 1950’s - 1960’s she supervised the first scientific programming group for Sperry Gyroscope Co. and served as a key member of the original COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) committee at Sylvania Electric Products. She also taught one of the first graduate programming courses in the country at Adelphi College. After joining IBM in 1961, she developed and directed the first FORMAC (FORmula MAnipulation Compiler). This was the first widely used general language and system for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic expressions. In 1979 she began handling Ada activities for IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Ada is a structured, object-oriented high-level computer programming language, designed for large, long-lived applications, where reliability and efficiency are paramount. Jean has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from the University of Illinois, both in Mathematics. She received an honorary D.Sc. from Mount Holyoke (1978).

Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson
Liz Gerber
Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson

Liz Gerber earned her MS and PhD in Product Design and Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. She specializes in design and human-computer interaction, particularly how social computing supports the innovation process. Her current research investigates crowd-funding as a mechanism for reducing disparities in entrepreneurship.
Gerber's work funded by the US National Science Foundation and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, including Transactions on Computer Human Interactions, Design Studies, and Organization Science.
As an award-winning teacher and researcher, Liz has touched the lives of more than 6,000 students through her teaching at Northwestern's Segal Design Institute and Stanford University's Hasso Plattner's Institute of Design and through her paradigm-shifting creation, Design for America, a national network of students using design to tackle social challenges.

Image credit - Lisa Beth Anderson

Image credits