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Raising a Glass to Cryptographers

I had the pleasure of dining with a tableful of cryptographers—the true guests of honor—at the RSA security conference in San Francisco last week.

As we noshed gnocchi at the Four Season’s Hotel, I learned about the group’s work. One researcher, Liron David, a PhD student at Tel-Aviv University, described an improved technique for recovering cryptographic keys from so-called side channel attacks. These attacks entail using weaknesses in the physical implementation of a system (like the sound, heat, and electromagnetic energy emitted by a whirring hard drive), as opposed to algorithmic flaws (like a faulty random number generator), for decipherment. Her method involved complex mathematics (which I will not attempt to muck up in the space allotted here).

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Another researcher, Peter Scholl, a cryptographer at the University of Bristol, detailed his work on “oblivious transfer.” First developed in 1981, this privacy-protective mechanism allows one party, like a person or computer server, to relay information to another party without knowing exactly what has been sent. Imagine looking up a contact’s phone number through a messaging service, like WhatsApp for example, without the company behind it (in this case Facebook (FB)) knowing which information you sought. That extra privacy might be preferable under certain circumstances, Scholl said.

Cryptography is a vitally important, if opaque, science—the basis of our security in an increasingly digital world. A reminder of that arrived Thursday when researchers at Google (GOOG) and a Dutch research institute sounded what they hope to be the final death knell for a decades-old cryptographic algorithm called SHA-1. Suffice it to say that they achieved a feat—the first “collision” of data supposedly secured by SHA-1—which will have immediate ramifications for the way many businesses operate electronically. (The Wall Street Journal has an excellent summary of the impact here.)

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Esoteric mathematics make the world hum, and the codebreakers deserve our praise.