Israeli who pioneered computer security wins top prize

The work done by the Weizmann Institute’s Shafi Goldwasser is a cornerstone of safe network interactions. For that, she and her American research partner are to win the prestigious Turing Award

Shafi Goldwasser (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Shafi Goldwasser (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In a world desperately searching for ways to increase computer security, the theories and studies of the Weizmann Institute’s Shafi Goldwasser, a pioneer in the field of cryptography, have become more relevant and appreciated than ever. So much so that Goldwasser, along with her research partner Prof. Silvio Micali of MIT, will receive the prestigious Turing Award, “for transformative work that laid the complexity-theoretic foundations for the science of cryptography, and in the process pioneered new methods for efficient verification of mathematical proofs in complexity theory,” the Weizmann Institute said.

The Turing Award, presented by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), is considered by computer professionals to be the computing world’s top award in the field, a sort of “Nobel Prize” (Nobels are not awarded in the field). The award carries a $250,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation and Google Inc.

Cryptography has been around for centuries, going back to the Pyramids and the First Temple period. The “atbash” system used in classical Jewish literature, in which a code that swaps letters in the Hebrew alphabet is used to generate coded messages, is considered a form of cryptography. But it was a 1982 paper by Goldwasser and Micali on the subject of “Probabilistic Encryption” that is considered the first scientific basis for a theory of what makes a successful cryptographic system.

That paper pioneered several themes which are today considered basic to the field — just in time for the computer and network revolution, which began only a few years later. Themes in the paper included the introduction of formal security definitions (upon which nearly all computer security and password systems are now based); the introduction of randomized methods for encryption which can satisfy stringent security requirements that could not be satisfied by previous non-random encryption schemes; and the methodology of algorithm-based “reductionist proofs,” which, if successful in keeping out those who don’t know the code, indicates that the security system is top-notch.

The 1982 paper also introduced the “simulation paradigm,” in which the security of a system is established by showing that an enemy could have simulated, on his own, any information he obtained while engaging with a cryptographic system — meaning that he had not compromised the system in order to generate that information. The simulation paradigm has become the most general method for proving security in cryptography, defining and proving the security of authentication methods and software protection schemes even for systems which include many participants, such as in electronic elections and on-line auctions.

In another influential paper, published in 1985 with Charles W. Rackoff, Goldwasser and Micali introduced the concept of “zero-knowledge interactive proofs.” An example of a zero-knowledge interactive proof would be an ATM machine that would not need an individual to enter their PIN number, but would only need to verify that they know it, via a sort of “conversation” that examines the results of a series of questions that indicate whether the person trying to prove their legitimacy is lying, or not.

Zero-knowledge proofs enable users working on the Internet who may not trust each other to compute joint functions on their secret data, opening the door to widespread collaboration on computer networks. In addition to the benefits for computer security, zero-knowledge interactive proofs have also impacted numerous other scientific areas, such as mathematics, the Weizmann Institute said.

Goldwasser has won a slew of prizes for her work, but the Turing Prize is special — not just because of the prestige and the $250,000 prize, but because she will be only the third woman to win the 47-year old award. The Weizmann Institute is also very proud of Goldwasser because she is the third Israeli – and the third Weizmann Institute professor – to win the award (the other two were Amir Pnueli, 1996, and Adi Shamir, 2002). The award will be presented at the ACM’s annual awards event on June 15 in San Francisco.

The work done by Goldwasser and Micali is a basic building block of modern computing, said ACM President Vint Cerf. “The encryption schemes running in today’s browsers meet their notions of security. The method of encrypting credit card numbers when shopping on the Internet also meets their test. We are indebted to these recipients for their innovative approaches to ensuring security in the digital age.”

Alfred Spector, Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives at Google Inc., agrees. “In the computer era, these advances in cryptography have transcended the cryptography of Alan Turing’s code-breaking era,” said Spector. “They now have applications for ATM cards, computer passwords and electronic commerce as well as preserving the secrecy of participant data such as electronic voting. These are monumental achievements that have changed how we live and work.”

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