Why The Time Is Now for High-Performance Cryptography
Enigma, the 'unbreakable' Nazi code machine
There's a fascinating new movie about how the most complex and intellectually challenging of activities - cryptanalysis - did as much to win World War II for the Allies as did any tank brigade. The Imitation Game is the story of how the mathematician Alan Turing broke the 'unbreakable' Nazi code machine (the ominously named Enigma device) that in turn helped the Allies secretly listen in on vital enemy communications.
I bring up this movie because some 75 years later, we all live in a world where cryptanalysis and cryptography have an enormous amount of influence over our day-to-day lives. The next time you buy something online, for instance, notice how the Internet response slows down and how the payment page arrives relatively slowly. This delay is the consequence of turning on what's known as the secure browsing mode, or 'https.' In secure browsing mode, data exchanged on the Internet is sent over a Secure Sockets Layer. The SSL uses cryptographic operations like public key cryptography for key exchange, and symmetric encryption for confidentiality.
Now here's the rub: Although the fastest and most powerful of today's computers can perform cryptographic computations in 1/100th of a second, they become slower when there are thousands of similar requests to be handled every minute. The 'Net is a big place. It is because of the sheer number of all these computationally intensive operations that there is a noticeable delay while shopping securely over the Internet.
For most of us, a slightly slower Internet browser is a small price to pay to know that your personal data is secure. Last year alone, online consumers who didn't use secure channels had enough of their personal information stolen by cyber-thieves to account for untold billions (maybe even trillions) of dollars. But I know what you're thinking: With all of our technological progress of late, we can't keep browser speeds lightning fast and personal data safe from cyber-thieves? I realize it can be frustrating, especially when you consider that a lot of this shopping occurs on mobile devices that are drained of their power supply way too quickly.
One of the answers to deal with these issues in the short term is Internet Protocol Version 6. When IPV6 is in place, everyone can claim at least ten unique Internet addresses. That means each smart device, whether it's a mobile phone, watch, sensor, or laptop, would have a unique IP address. There will still exist the need for secure internal and external communications on these devices as well as with external devices. That's why across networks there is a need for multilayer encryption. The challenge here is to ensure secure and faster communication and information exchange between devices.
Granted, there are still trade-offs. One is to reduce the cost of compliance with data privacy regulations while allowing high-performance and secure connectivity to critical infrastructures present in the network. When we can accomplish what I've just described on a widespread scale, then we will have realized 'high-performance cryptography' for all consumers. There are variations of high-performance cryptography, and I'll mention a few:
- Elliptic Curve Cryptography allows us to make digital signatures shorter and efficient to process without sacrificing security
- Searchable Encrypted Databases focus on querying encrypted data without actually decrypting it. Doing so increases the efficiency of handling huge amounts of data by saving the computation involved in the decrypting process
- Network Encryptors perform high-performance, inline encryption. These encryptors allow large-scale networks to secure communications from thousands of wireless users in an enterprise WLAN or over high-speed optical links
- Quantum Computers utilize a strong (yet still practically unproven for mass) solution for faster cryptographic operations. But they'll be here soon enough. Using quantum computers would exponentially increase the speed of cryptographic computations
When all browsers support secure communication on the Internet, then response times will be cut in half. So user operations would conceivably double. In the near future, the use of high-performance cryptography will allow smart Internet users to double their browsing time by reducing the battery drain - a task that bulky, traditional cryptography can't achieve.
If the men and women who deciphered the Nazi Enigma machine were alive today, I reckon even they would be impressed by the convergence of speed and security over the Internet that a typical consumer enjoys. They might also be amazed that encryption is such a massive part of the global economy! That's because today we're fighting our own war of sorts against cyber-criminals. Achieving mass, high-performance cryptography is no small task, but we will get there soon and it will save the markets trillions of dollars.