Seeing without revealing: IBM touts encryption breakthrough

IBM Researcher Craig Gentry creates"fully homomorphic encryption."

IBM today is saying one of its researchers has made it possible for computer systems to perform calculations on encrypted data without decrypting it.  While that sounds somewhat counterintuitive and complicated, IBM says the breakthrough would let computer services, such as Google or others storing the confidential, electronic data of others will be able to fully analyze data on their clients' behalf without expensive interaction with the client and without actually seeing any of the private data.

The idea is a user could search for information using encrypted search words, and get encrypted results they could then decrypt on their own. Other potential applications include enabling filters to identify spam, even in encrypted email, or protecting information contained in electronic medical records. The breakthrough might also one day enable computer users to retrieve information from a search engine with more confidentiality, IBM said 

IBM Researcher Craig Gentry came up with he calls "fully homomorphic encryption," which uses a mathematical system known as an  "ideal lattice," that lets people to fully interact with encrypted data in ways previously thought impossible.

Using the technology could also bolster the cloud computing model where a service provider hosts the confidential data of others. It might better enable a service to perform computations on clients' data at their request, such as analyzing sales patterns, without exposing the original data.

"Fully homomorphic encryption is a bit like enabling a layperson to perform flawless neurosurgery while blindfolded, and without later remembering the episode. We believe this breakthrough will enable businesses to make more informed decisions, based on more studied analysis, without compromising privacy. We also think that the lattice approach holds potential for helping to solve additional cryptography challenges in the future, " said Charles Lickel, vice president of Software Research at IBM in a release.  

According to an article on Forbes.com, Gentry's solution has a catch: It requires immense computational effort. In the case of a Google search, for instance, performing the process with encrypted keywords would multiply the necessary computing time by around 1 trillion, Gentry estimates.

IBM said two fathers of modern encryption -- Ron Rivest and Leonard Adleman -- together with Michael Dertouzos, introduced and struggled with the notion of fully homomorphic encryption approximately 30 years ago. Although advances through the years offered partial solutions to this problem, a full solution that achieves all the desired properties of homomorphic encryption did not exist until now.

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