Imagine getting a friend’s advice on a personal problem and being safe in the knowledge that it would be impossible for your friend to divulge the question, or even his own reply.
Researchers at Microsoft have taken a step toward making something similar possible for cloud computing, so that data sent to an Internet server can be used without ever being revealed. Their prototype can perform statistical analyses on encrypted data despite never decrypting it. The results worked out by the software emerge fully encrypted, too, and can only be interpreted using the key in the possession of the data’s owner.
Cloud services are increasingly being used for every kind of computing, from entertainment to business software. Yet there are justifiable fears over security, as the attacks on Sony’s servers that liberated personal details from 100 million accounts demonstrated.
Kristin Lauter, the Microsoft researcher who collaborated with colleagues Vinod Vaikuntanathan and Michael Naehrig on the new design, says it would ensure that data could only escape in an encrypted form that would be nearly impossible for attackers to decode without possession of a user’s decryption key. “This proof of concept shows that we could build a medical service that calculates predictions or warnings based on data from a medical monitor tracking something like heart rate or blood sugar,” she says. “A person’s data would always remain encrypted, and that protects their privacy.”
The prototype storage system is the most practical example yet of a cryptographic technique known as homomorphic encryption. “People have been talking about it for a while as the Holy Grail for cloud computing security,” says Lauter. “We wanted to show that it can already be used for some types of cloud service.”
Researchers recognized the potential value of fully homomorphic encryption (in which software could perform any calculation on encrypted data and produce a result that was also encrypted) many years ago. But until recently, it wasn’t known to be possible, let alone practical. Only in 2009 did Craig Gentry of IBM publish a mathematical proof showing fully homomorphic encryption was possible.
In the relatively short time since, Gentry and other researchers have built on that initial proof to develop more working prototypes, although these remain too inefficient to use on a real cloud server, says Lauter.
Smaller design teams can now prototype and deploy faster.