Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eurocrypt 2016: Hacker Ethics on the Rise

Following Phil Rogaway at Asiacrypt, Bart Preneel gave the IACR distinguished lecture on the future of cryptography. He went from outlining the Snowden leaks to proposing concrete ideas for how information technology should be used. It was refreshing to see a perspective that offers some optimism in these times.

Most of the Snowden leaks are already more than two years old, so I will not cover them in detail. However, it is important to repeat that they are less about breaking cryptography (and if so, more about breaking protocols than primitives) and more about breaking software and coercing companies.

Observing that privacy is a fundamental requirement of a free and democratic society, Bart expressed his disappointment over that the fact that most cryptography in use serves corporate interests rather than users' privacy. The largest deployment of cryptography for privacy is WhatsApp, which is of course dwarfed by the deployment in finance and access control.

A key point of the talk was the move of the focus from communication security to computation security. The real-world protocols of secure channels are far from being perfect, but there is continuous improvement, which promises to solve the problem eventually. However, the state of affairs is more critical for the software implementations. While attacks on TLS itself are relatively involved, software bugs tend to be more readily exploitable and require continuous patching, which in turns opens another attack vector. Current mitigations such as firewalls and anti-virus software seems to offer a weak line of defense at best and yet another attack vector at worst.

Moving away a bit from technological details, Bart compared the architecture of IT systems to politics. Just as democracies avoid a single point of control (and thus a single point of failure), IT systems should do the same. He advocated to move away from big data because big data leads to big breaches. In this light, privacy by design (a core of the new EU data protection law) requires data being stored decentrally. Cryptographic protocols such as MPC and FHE offer the capabilities of using decentralized data without any single point of failure.

Another important point of the talk was the observation that transparency is essential. Without open software and hardware it is impossible to assess the security of a system independently. Together with a call for more privacy, this sounds very much like the hacker ethics of keeping private data private and making data of public interest public.

Finally, Bart replied to Phil's point that cryptographers engage too much in crypto for crypto instead of real problem, saying that it is hard to predict which technology will be valuable in the future and quoting Einstein: "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" Essentially, Bart called for the entirety of the cryptography "stack" to be continuously looked at, from the assumptions to the implementations, and for not avoiding hard problems.

He concluded by quoting Kant: "Optimism is a moral duty."

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