Cryptography (illustration)
Cryptography (illustration)Thinkstock

Israeli Professor Daniel Boneh of Stanford University will be awarded the 2014 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences for his work in cryptography. The award specifically will recognize his work in “pairings-based cryptography,” which is a technique whereby documents are encoded on the one hand, and only the “designated recipient” would have the ability to consequently decode it. This is not the stuff of espionage, but also critical for passing private information in Fortune 500 companies and between government offices.

The award is mainly out of recognition for making cryptography more accessible and easier to implement, leading to private security ventures like Voltage Security Inc. which was recently bought out by Hewlett Packard.

Boneh will be honored at Infosys’ annual Awards Banquet on June 20th in San Francisco, California. Along with the award, he will receive a cash prize of $175,000.

“This approach, called pairing-based cryptography, relies on complex problems arising from algebraic geometry (bilinear maps based on elliptic curves),” according to an Infosys press release.

One technique Boneh has pioneered is the use of email addresses to establish the identity of the recipient. When asked by Arutz Sheva if relying on email was itself a security risk for things such as identity theft, Boneh replied that there was a fine distinction to make between encryption on the one hand and decryption on the other.

“Encryption is done using a simple public key, such as an email address.   Decryption is done using a secret key only known to the decryptor.   Hacking the decryptor's machine (phone or laptop) and stealing the secret key will enable the attacker to decrypt data.   Generally, encryption reduces the problem of protecting sensitive documents to the problem of protecting the secret decryption key.   If the secret decryption key is stolen from the recipient's machine then encryption can be undone.

Regardless, concerns about identifying the user of a stolen device like a laptop or a cell phone still exist. Boneh has worked on other projects in relation to this one, including developing security for mobiles.

Mobile devices are equipped with an array of sensors (GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, etc.).   We recently worked on protecting access to these sensors and ensuring that data collected from the sensors does not reveal sensitive user data.”

He credits that work to collaboration with his student Yan Michalevsky at Stanford. The specific project for which he is receiving his award is also a collaboration, but with computer science Professor Matt Franklin of University of California-Davis.

Boneh earned his BA in computer science from The Technion, and MA and PhD degrees from Princeton. Alongside his research, he teaches computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford.

CEO and Managing Director of Infosys Dr. Vishal Sikka explained the choice by saying, “Boneh has helped forge connections between academic and commercial cryptography, helping improve commercial products while increasing the relevance of academic research,” said.

Cryptography is still an open field, says Boneh. His research is not limited only to the subjects mentioned above, but also to issues that are emerging problems.

“Cryptography is an active area of research with lots of fascinating open problems.  Currently, my group is part of an NSF center called Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF) that develops new methods to hide secrets in open source software.”

The center’s stated purpose is to “to enable software that can keep secrets: software that makes use of secrets, but such that these secrets remain hidden even if an adversary can examine the software code in its entirety and analyze its behavior as it runs,” more generally called “general-purpose program obfuscation.”

“The question is how to write software that contains a secret key in it, but anyone examining the software cannot learn what that key is.  All they can do is run the software and use the results it generates.”

“Boneh has produced new directions and given the field a fresh start,” said ACM President Alexander L. Wolf. “He has added greatly to our understanding of important problems underlying modern cryptography systems.”