February 11th, 2011

Abstract

A cryptanalyst is a code-breaker - someone who can transform ciphertext (unreadable) into plaintext (readable) without knowledge of a proper decryption key. This talk shows, by means of two examples, how specialized hardware can greatly increase the efficiency of the cryptanalyst. The first example goes back to World War II. The German forces protected their communications using Enigma encryption machines. With the help of an electro-mechanical computer, called the Bombe, Alan Turing and his colleagues were able to break Enigma-encrypted messages. The second example is a much more recent and ongoing effort. The company Certicom has posted a set of "ECC-Challenges", which are cryptanalytic problems based on Elliptic Curve Cryptography. An international team of researchers is building a gigantic distributed computer, aimed a breaking these challenges.

The talk will describe the efforts of Turing to break the Enigma, and the efforts of the ECC research team to break the ECC-Challenge. While both of these groups are living and working six decades apart, their stories are remarkably similar. Both teams make use of fundamental insight into a cryptographic algorithm to uncover a potential weakness. Both teams then turn that insight into a highly-parallel and high-performance machine. These two examples show how, in the race between cryptographers and cryptanalysts, brains a more important than technology. Second, these two examples further demonstrate how cryptographers have made enormous progress in the past years, apparently with greater strides than the cryptanalysts.

About the speaker

Patrick Schaumont is Assistant Professor in Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. He received the PhD degree in Electrical Engineering from UCLA (2004), and the MS degree in Computer Science from Rijksuniversiteit Ghent, Belgium (1990). His research interests include design of, and design methodologies for, secure embedded systems. At Virginia Tech, he is leading the Secure Embedded Systems group. He has served on the program committee of international conferences in this field such as CHES, DATE, DAC, IEEE HOST and IEEE MEMOCODE, and as guest editor for IEEE Design and Test Magazine, ACM Transactions on Reconfigurable Technology and Systems, and IEEE Transactions on Computer-Aided Design of Integrated Circuits. He is a senior member of the IEEE.

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