The cryptography behind bitcoin solved a paradoxical problem: a currency with no regulator, that nonetheless can’t be counterfeited. Now a similar mix of math and code promises to pull off another seemingly magical feat by allowing anyone to share their data with the cloud and nonetheless keep it entirely private.
On Tuesday, a pair of bitcoin entrepreneurs and the MIT Media Lab revealed a prototype for a system called Enigma, designed to achieve a decades-old goal in data security known as “homomorphic” encryption: A way to encrypt data such that it can be shared with a third party and used in computations without it ever being decrypted. That mathematical trick—which would allow untrusted computers to accurately run computations on sensitive data without putting the data at risk of hacker breaches or surveillance—has only become more urgent in an age when millions of users constantly share their secrets with cloud services ranging from Amazon and Dropbox to Google and Facebook. Now, with bitcoin’s tricks in their arsenal, Enigma’s creators say they can now pull off homomorphically encrypted computations more efficiently than ever.
“You can see it as a black box,” says Guy Zyskind, an MIT Media Lab graduate researcher and one of Enigma’s creators. “You send whatever data you want, and it runs in the black box and only returns the result. The actual data is never revealed, neither to the outside nor to the computers running the computations inside.”
Enigma’s homomorphic technique works by mimicking a few of the features of bitcoin’s decentralized network architecture: It encrypts data by splitting it up into pieces and randomly distributing indecipherable chunks of it to hundreds of computers in the Enigma network known as “nodes.” Each node performs calculations on its discrete chunk of information before the user recombines the results to derive an unencrypted answer. Thanks to some mathematical tricks the Enigma creators implemented, the nodes are able to collectively perform every kind of computation that computers normally do, but without accessing any other portion of the data except the tiny chunk they were assigned.
To keep track of who owns what data—and where any given data’s pieces have been distributed—Enigma stores that metadata in the bitcoin blockchain, the unforgeable record of messages copied to thousands of computers to prevent counterfeit and fraud in the bitcoin economy. (Like other bitcoin-style decentralized crypto schemes, Enigma’s architecture can seem almost like a Rube Goldberg machine in its complexity. For a full technical explanation, read the project’s whitepaper here. In addition to that whitepaper, Zyskind and Nathan say they plan to publish the open-source code for the project by the end of the summer.)
“I can take my age, this one piece of data, and split it into pieces, and give it to ten people,” says Zyskind. “If you ask each one of those persons, they have only a random chunk. Only by combining enough of those pieces can they decrypt the original data.”
It’s important to note that any new and unproven encryption scheme should be approached with caution. But if Enigma’s homomorphic encryption works as its creators promise, it would have vast implications. Private databases could be hosted and queried in the cloud without any risk of revealing the database’s contents. It could also enable a search engine to return search results without ever seeing the user’s unencrypted search request. Enigma’s creators suggest the project could also enable Internet users to safely share all sorts of data with pharmaceutical companies and advertisers without any privacy risks—the companies could run computations on the encrypted data and get useful results without the access to see any specific user’s data. “No one wants to give their data to some company when you don’t know what they‘ll do with it,” says Oz Nathan, Enigma’s co-creator. “But if you have guaranteed privacy, data analysis can be a lot more powerful. People will actually be willing to share more.”
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