Intel, Microsoft aim for breakthrough in DARPA encryption project
The widespread encryption of data while stored on disk and communicated through the network — often called “at rest” and “in transit” — are critical security measures to protect business and personal data. Now Intel and Microsoft hope to create a practical and usable implementation of a third measure — “in use” encryption — that could allow encrypted data to be processed without decryption.
More formally known as fully homomorphic encryption (FHE), this area of cryptography research has already produced algorithms and systems that can manipulate encrypted data in very specific ways — for, say, averaging or searching. When the data in unencrypted, the result is the same as if the operation had been performed on the plaintext data. Yet FHE is costly, with processing requiring up to a million times more work to perform — a calculation that may take milliseconds to perform will instead take hours, days, or weeks, says Rosario Cammarota, principal engineer at Intel Labs.
To make the economics more feasible, Intel and Microsoft have signed onto a multiyear initiative launched by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“If we want to enable homomorphic encryption to process general-purpose workloads at scale — real and meaningful homomorphic encryption — then we need to go to custom hardware,” Cammarota says. “From the hardware standpoint, DARPA wants a reduction in the overhead that is more than five orders of magnitude.”
That means speeding up the processing by a factor of roughly 100,000. For such a feat, Intel will create an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) accelerator chip to speed up computations on encrypted data, while Microsoft will create cloud services around the custom hardware, Intel stated in a March 8 announcement.
The DARPA initiative, known as the Data Protection in Virtual Environments (DPRIVE) program, funds teams of companies and research organizations to rearchitect the software, hardware, and algorithms to create a platform that dramatically speeds up the computations and makes FHE a practical encryption solution, said Dr. Tom Rondeau, DARPA program manager, in a March 2 statement.
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