Cryptography is the backbone of our current digital society, but how did it
become so important? Interestingly, the systematic study of cryptography as a
science (and perhaps as an art) started only during the past 100 years.
The word cryptography is derived from the Greek krypto and graphein, which mean
hide and writing. The first type of cryptography was simple writing, since the
majority of people could not read (New World, 2007). Later, most of the great
civilizations used some kind of cryptography to transfer important private
information. The earliest form of cryptography was a cipher (a cipher is an
algorithm used for encryption or decryption). Ciphers had the problem of being
easily broken using the frequency of the letters, and once a generalized way of
breaking them was found they became obsolete.
Middle ages to today
The next big advance came in the 1600s when the first cryptographic key was
recorded, which caused a big shift in the space, moving the importance from
hiding the system to hiding the key. The system could be public, but one could
still not read the message without the key. That overcame the problem of a
system as a whole becoming obsolete with the discovery of its mechanism.
Then, during 19th Century the first use of a rotor for encryption was recorded.
In the 20th Century the invention of the Enigma machine (used by the German
military during WWII) was a technical milestone, being one of the hardest
ciphers to break. However, that too was eventually broken by Poland, and British
cryptographers designed a means to obtain the daily key.
After the war, cryptography found its way into commercial applications, with IBM
being the first company to systematically develop a crypto-group and what ended
up being the first U.S. standard for encryption. The standard, though, was
short-lived, since it was also broken by a simple but very powerful method
called a brute-force attack. Brute-force involves simply trying all the possible
combinations in a very computationally intensive process. That is also why
advances in computing power are followed by increases in the complexity of the
Cryptography has been a continuous game of chase between the complexity of the
cryptographic keys and the computing power available. In principle, any key is
vulnerable to a brute-force attack; the more complex the key the more time
consuming such an attack is.
The importance of cryptography in the digital age
Advances in technology and computing power have enabled people to move more and
more of their data to the digital sphere. Moving data through any digital
means—aside from the obvious advantage it brings to speed, accessibility, and
convenience—comes with the mirroring disadvantage of being harder to protect.
The need to protect digital data from being used for unlawful purposes is being
tackled by cryptography. However, as with all rights, there are competing
interests. Law enforcement has a legitimate right to intercept communications in
certain circumstances. Balancing these rights requires a balance known as the
tightrope between security and privacy.
The importance of cryptography
[/how-zero-knowledge-proofs-can-increase-cybersecurity/] can be summarized by
the fact that it is the only tool the user has in the digital world to protect
their private data. And as we move more and more into the digital world, by
association, cryptography is becoming more and more important.
The state of cryptography today
Today the need to communicate with parties we cannot necessarily trust, has
given rise to “public-key cryptography” or “asymmetric cryptography.” This kind
of cryptography relies on public keys that the sender uses to encrypt the
message and private keys which the receiver has and uses to decipher the
message. This process is one-way, meaning that no one else can decipher the
message. Even these state-of-the-art methods are still breakable. If nothing
else, an algorithm can be broken by a brute-force attack that cycles through
every possible key. Therefore, the goal of present-day cryptography is to create
algorithms that make it computationally infeasible for an attacker to recover
the private key.
What about privacy?
Even though state-of-the-art cryptographic protocols are virtually unbreakable
because of required computing time, companies and individuals are ever in search
of more ways to transact more privately. Recently, with advances in computing
power and cryptography, trust has become a new target for individuals and
organizations concerned with privacy. Cryptographers have thought that if it is
possible to encrypt and effectively hide the data from people who don’t have to
see it, perhaps there is a way to still transact with them without showing the
data. And sure enough, during the 1980s tools such as zero-knowledge proofs and
calculations on encrypted data were discovered. By applying mathematical
transformations to the underlying data, these tools enable people to interact
with and validate encrypted data, effectively creating another revolution in the
field. Now the data exchange can be private, even between parties that transact
Increased efficiency for high-demand protocols
In 2012 Project Pinocchio from IBM and Microsoft found a way to reduce the
computing needs of a zero-knowledge proof by 20x and for zero-knowledge
verification by more than 50x, making it efficient enough for practical uses. It
now can be used to hide the data between two parties and still allow them to
transact, not only theoretically, but fast enough to have private and commercial
applications. This breakthrough opened new possibilities to businesses and
researchers, who started wondering what other applications are within reach and
what other technological possibilities exist.
That same curiosity is what drove us at decentriq to explore these technologies
in the first place. Our team develops novel implementations for cutting-edge
[https://decentriq.ch/]explore applications such as:
* Secure and private online voting
* Augmented privacy for exchanges, enabling them to not have to reveal their
whole order book
* A bulletproof way for anyone to provide a proof of cryptographic assets
without ever revealing the funds available in one’s account
* A marketplace for alternative data providers and buyers that enables the
business to try the data before deciding to buy it, while keeping the data
* Making possible a demonstration of the predictive power of a model on new
data without disclosing the model or the data
All these applications are made possible by recent and ongoing research, both by
decentriq and by third-party open-source projects fueled by demand for increased
security and privacy in individual and commercial datasets.
What does the future of cryptography hold?
These cutting-edge discoveries and advancements in cryptography are cultivating
an exciting future for the field. What appears to be the biggest change on the
horizon is quantum computing. Quantum computing, using the properties of the
superpositioned particles, is able to exponentially increase the computing power
available to us. That means the cryptographic transformations that today are
inefficient to run on a silicon chip can be run efficiently on a quantum chip,
potentially rendering today’s encryption obsolete.
Today, we encrypt data as it travels over the internet and when it is at rest
on a storage device. But we have to decrypt data to use or analyze it, creating
a potential security vulnerability. Homomorphic encryption is a new idea that
solves that problem, allowing users to process data without decrypting it. With
homomorphic encryption, we process encrypted data and produce encrypted
results. And while this is not a novel idea, new breakthroughs that vastly
improved performance brought the possibility of efficient encrypted data
processing back to the forefront.
Thus, the chase continues. The advances in quantum computing have given rise to
quantum encryption, which uses the properties of quantum particles to ensure
unbreakable encryption. There are already several projects working on quantum
encryption and how it can be implemented. Even though quantum computing at scale
may be many years away, we at decentriq follow the technology closely to make
sure we are ahead of the curve for our customers when the time comes.
Nevertheless, until then, we apply our cryptographic skills to the betterment of
cutting-edge protocols, making them more efficient, user-friendly, and wider
known to everyone who could benefit from them. We believe that in a world where
the most valuable asset is information, it is worth exploring novel
technological uses for confidential computing to protect it.