Up in a cloud for processing computer data

Research is moving us closer to the ability to work on data while it is still encrypted.

By
January 1, 2012 04:13
4 minute read.
Cloudy

Cloudy. (photo credit: Graphic/Jpost)

 
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A declining amount of computing is conducted today on desktop computers; instead, cloud computing – in which operations are carried out on a network of shared, remote servers – is expected to rise as the demand for computing power increases. This raises some crucial questions about security: For instance, can we perform computations on data stored in the “cloud” without letting anyone else see our information? Research carried out at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Microsoft Research Lab in Redmond, California is moving us closer to the ability to work on data while it is still encrypted, giving an encrypted result that can later be securely deciphered.

Attempting computation on sensitive data stored on shared servers leaves that data exposed in ways that traditional encryption techniques can’t prevent. The main problem is that to manipulate the data, it has to be first decoded. “Until a few years ago, no one knew if the encryption needed for this sort of online security was even possible,” says Dr. Zvika Brakerski, who recently completed his Ph.D. under Prof. Shafi Goldwasser of the computer science and applied mathematics department.

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In 2009, however, a doctoral student at Stanford University named Craig Gentry provided the first demonstration of so-called fully homomorphic encryption (FHE). His original method was extraordinarily time-consuming and unwieldy, making it highly impractical. Gentry constructed his FHE system by using fairly sophisticated math, based on so-called “ideal lattices,” and this required him to make new and unfamiliar complexity assumptions to prove security. Gentry’s use of ideal lattices seemed inherent to FHE; researchers assumed that they were necessary for the server to perform such basic operations as addition and multiplication on encrypted data.

Brakerski, together with Dr. Vinod Vaikuntanathan (who was Goldwasser’s student at MIT), surprised the computer security world earlier this year with two scientific papers in which they described several new ways of making fully homomorphic encryption more efficient. For one thing, they managed to make FHE work with much simpler arithmetic, which speeds up processing time. And a surprise discovery showed that a mathematical construct used to generate the encryption keys could be simplified without compromising security. Gentry’s original ideal lattices are theoretical collections of points that can be added together – as in an ordinary lattice structure – and also multiplied. But the new research shows that the lattice does not have to be ideal, which simplifies the construction immensely.

“The fact that it worked was something like magic, and it has challenged our assumptions about the function of the ideal lattices in homomorphic encryption,” says Brakerski.

Their result promises to pave a path to applying FHE in practice. Optimized versions of the new system could be hundreds – or even thousands – of times faster than Gentry’s original construction. Indeed, Brakerski and Vaikuntanathan have managed to advance the theory behind fully homomorphic encryption to the point that computer engineers can begin to work on applications.

These might include, for instance, securing medical information for research: A third party could perform large medical studies on encrypted medical records without having access to the individuals’ information.



LARGE & TINY

The Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheba has launched a state-of-the-art nanoscience education program to provide students with valuable hands-on skills and training in the developing field. Israel will be the first college in the country to implement the NanoProfessor Nanoscience Education Program. As Israel’s largest engineering college, the institution is focused on educating students in engineering and technology through innovative instruction and R&D. Students are provided with instrumentation, curriculum and hands-on labs to expand students’ understanding, skills and real-world experience needed to succeed in the growing nanotechnology industry.

Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale, usually leading to the development of materials and devices possessing at least one dimension and sized from one to 100 nanometers (each is one-billionth of a meter).

“Becoming the first school in Israel to implement the program ensures that our students will gain the professional training necessary to become leaders in Israel’s nanotechnology industry,” said Jehuda Hadad, the college’s president. The cutting-edge program will help it offer a skilled workforce to the more than 65 Israeli corporations already engaged in nanotech-related businesses, he said.

“We are excited to bring the NanoProfessor Nanoscience Education Program to SCE to support the college in continuing Israel’s tradition of scientific excellence,” said Dean Hart, chief commercial officer at NanoInk. “Israel has the third largest concentration of nanotech startup companies in the world,” he said, adding that it will help meet the growing demand within Israel for nano-savvy workers by providing Shamoon College students with valuable training using the same equipment and materials used by professionals in the nanotechnology field today.

The program alternates between classroom lectures and hands-on lab work and includes a textbook authored by leading nanotechnology experts, covering the topics of nanotechnology basics, nanophysics, nanochemistry, nanobiology and environmental, health and safety perspectives on nanotechnology.

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