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Get Curious, Not Furious

By Martin E. Hellman
Co-authored by Paula Reinman

Saving Personal Relationships and The World

What do nuclear disarmament, the dark web and good marriages have in common? To find out, just ask Marty Hellman, Marconi Fellow, Turing Award winner and co-inventor of public key cryptography.

Much of the connected world that we know and love today is due to Hellman’s innovation. Together with Whitfield Diffie and Ralph Merkle, Hellman created a key exchange technology that spawned a whole new class of encryption algorithms, which enable security for everything from online financial transactions to e-mail for business, government and consumer applications.

As a long-time leader in the computer privacy debate, Hellman advocates for strong encryption and effective communication to ensure the commercial and national security interests of countries. While encryption and interpersonal communications may seem like an odd combination, they are based on powerful insights from Hellman’s personal and professional lives and can be applied to security hotbeds globally.

Cyrpto-Wars: The Tech Community vs. Law Enforcement

Hellman has been a central player in the long-standing battle between the tech community and law enforcement over “exceptional access,” the level of access that law enforcement, specifically the NSA and the FBI, should have into highly secure systems. These “crypto-wars” are chronicled in a Stanford alumni magazine article.

Currently, once a device has ten unsuccessful password attempts, it closes down and erases the information on the device. Exceptional access would allow law enforcement to make many more attempts to open these devices while keeping the information on them intact.

This is a hot issue again in the wake of the Paris bombings, San Bernardino shootings and other terrorist activity. The FBI is asking the tech community to provide exceptional access to phones and other devices. Hellman believes that these “backdoors” would expose government, business and consumers to security breeches that could have untold consequences, as described in a letter that Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Ronald Rivest and Martin Hellman published in The Hill. Hellman continues to advocate for strong security in all systems.

Adding Interpersonal Communications to the Mix

While Hellman was developing public key cryptography in the 1970’s, his marriage to his wife, Dorothie, was falling apart. Committed to finding a way to make the relationship work, Dorothie searched for catalysts and eventually found Beyond War, a group that started the Hellmans on a path to repairing the damage they had done to their relationship. They worked with the group from 1980 to 1988, at which time they left to take the process to the next level. A sequence of such steps – and Dorothie’s persistence – allowed them to eventually recapture the true love they felt when they first fell for one another.

Over the past ten years, Hellman developed a way to quantify the risk of nuclear war, yielding a devastating conclusion: Depending on nuclear weapons appears to be far riskier than playing Russian roulette with the life of a newborn child. At the same time, he found that the techniques that he and Dorothie had created to restore their relationship were the same ones countries needed to use to reduce the threat of war.

Hellman also found that while many more people were interested in improving their interpersonal relationships than in improving international ones, the two goals complement each other well. As people see the direct benefit and impact of these techniques in the interpersonal sphere, it gives them motivation to carry them into the larger international environment. The positive response to these ideas led Hellman and his wife to write the book, A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet.

Bridging the Communications Gap

Curious about how the Hellmans repaired their own marriage and how we can try to save the world from nuclear war? Here are some concepts to try both in your everyday relationships and in a global context:

  • Compassion – Thinking deeply about what it’s like to live in the other party’s skin, including their history, their hopes and their fears.
  • Holistic thinking – Seeking solutions that benefit all parties.  This includes the hard work of finding these win-win proposals since they often do not seem to exist at first glance.
  • Get curious, not furious – When the other party does something that’s upsetting, ask why they did that, rather than reacting immediately in anger.
  • Critical thinking – Recognizing the unstated assumptions that underlie our worldview, both interpersonally and internationally.
  • Conflict resolution as a process – It’s unrealistic to expect quick solutions to deep interpersonal differences, let alone conflicts with other countries.  Seeing conflict resolution as a process that takes time changes what might seem impossible into a reasonable sequence of steps.

The Hellmans are using their $500,000 share of this year’s Turing Award to create a more peaceful and sustainable world by showcasing how the changes that saved their marriage are the same ones that will reduce global conflict. While the world’s problems can seem too big for individual action to make a difference, applying the Hellmans’ lessons in our own relationships will create a circle of good that will spread faster than we think.