A week to cherish

In case you hadn't noticed, Firefox 2.0 was officially released this past Tuesday. As far as I know, this marks the first instance of a product targeted at the mass market with ECC capabilities. By that, I don't mean "error correcting codes" or even "early childhood caries" but a next generation public-key cryptographic technology called Elliptic Curve Cryptography. The ECC code in Firefox was contributed by our research team as part of the Sun Labs' Next Gen Crypto project. Major technology vendors are embracing ECC and 2007 promises to be the tipping point for its ubiquitous adoption. Compared to alternatives like RSA, ECC provides equivalent security using fewer computational resources.

In an interesting coincidence, it was around this time 30 years ago that Whit Diffie and Marty Hellman published their seminal paper New Directions in Cryptography that marks the birth of public-key crypto (PKC) -- at least in the open world outside top secret military agencies. Last Thursday, the Computer History Museum hosted a special event to celebrate the 30th Anniversary. It featured a panel discussion moderated by Steven Levy, author of Crypto. Panelists included Whit Diffie, Marty Hellman, Brian Snow (he was at the NSA during those years), Jim Bidzos (founder of RSA and later Verisign), Ray Ozzie (now Chief Software Architect at Microsoft and the creator of Lotus Notes, the first widely used product to include RSA cryptography) and Dan Boneh (Stanford Professor, well known cryptographer, inventor of Identity Based Encryption). The panelists were introduced by John Markoff, Senior Writer for the New York Times.

In his introduction, John Markoff claimed that no other technology, with the possible exception of nuclear technology, has had a bigger impact on our lives. Dan Boneh made a brief presentation outlining the history of public-key cryptography. If you've heard him speak, you already know how brilliant this guy is. Dan and I did our student internship together at NEC Research Institute, Princeton and I just wish some of his brilliance had rubbed off on me (where was proximity communication when I really needed it :-)). SSL, especially how it revolutionized the web by making strong cryptography transparent to end-users, featured prominently. Elliptic Curve Cryptography was also mentioned several times during Dan's presentation and he was pleased to learn about ECC in Firefox (he already knew about our ECC contribution to OpenSSL).

For me, the best part of the evening was listening to fascinating stories of how the British equivalent of the NSA had discovered PKC (which they called "non secret encryption") a few years before the outside world. If this interests you but you only have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend reading Steven Levy's article in Wired magazine.

They were selling Levy's "Crypto" at the event and I am now the proud owner of a copy autographed by the author and the two inventors -- Diffie and Hellman. It is gripping ... I only got five hours of sleep that night but I haven't had this much fun in a while. I suppose that's a sad commentary on my geeky life :-).

This event was one of those occasions when I can't believe how fortunate I am. Growing up on the opposite side of the world (India), I never imagined that I'd get to work in silicon valley, the source of so many influential innovations, let alone be in the presence of crypto royalty -- folks of whom I'd only read about in books. WOW!!!

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Vipul Gupta

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