Flawless Security for Critical Online Transactions
The word “cryptography” conjures up all sorts of clandestine imagery, from endless strings of mathematical sequences to the heroes of Bletchley Park. Often overlooked, however, is the complete reliance of anyone living in today’s Digital Age on complex and dependable encryption software. Everything from text messages, emails, personal and institutional banking transactions, air traffic, and computer operating systems function the way we expect them to because the raw data being communicated, the zeros and ones, are protected against manipulation by mathematical encryption tools.
As the list of essential activities contained outside the digital realm approaches zero, and the number and complexity of belligerent threats to our data increases, the demand for encryption capabilities able to withstand and develop in step with such threats is growing exponentially. Traditional computing was once baffled by complex encryption sequences, with the amount of time required to break certain codes reaching numbers well beyond the age of our universe. However, the advent of quantum computing threatens to render formerly formidable cryptographic algorithms essentially useless. Given the increasing digitalization of high-stakes operations, such as elections, the need for modern cryptographic schemes is pressing.
Chris Kapulkin and his research group from the Department of Mathematics at Western University are working on a form of cryptographic process called homomorphic encryption. Essential to online free and fair elections, this approach allows for reliable tallying of votes without the disclosure of personal voting information. Switzerland famously put a halt to online elections after it was found that cryptographic flaws meant that a government could fabricate election outcomes, demonstrating a clear need for reliability in the underlying cryptographic algorithms.
Estimates from Elections Canada suggest that a transition to online voting would lower the cost of a federal election from $10 per elector (in 2008) to about $2 per elector. Nearly 18 million ballots were cast in the 2015 federal election, meaning the potential savings of online voting would be well in excess of $100 million.
Beyond electoral applications of encryption, the Kapulkin group is also working on a cryptographic process called formal verification. “The formal verification tools we are developing seek to remove the element of human error from the verification, or proofreading, of cryptographic algorithms because human error can be extraordinary costly,” says Chris. Intel Pentium’s algorithmic errors cost the firm half a billion dollars, leading them to invest in formal verification tactics to prevent such expensive reoccurrences. Crippling code bugs, compromising security and causing costly recalls, are reported time and again; formal verification cryptographic schemes being developed in the Kapulkin lab can greatly limit these issues by removing the element of human error from software.
Banking software, pension plans, smart devices, cars, airplanes – the list goes on; all are dependent on software that is becoming increasingly vulnerable. Removing human error from modern cryptographic software adds an unprecedented degree of security to crucial services on which Canadians depend.
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