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OSU researchers develop secure computation protocol

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Oregon State University researchers have figured out a way to make secure computation even more secure than they thought possible.

Associate professor Mike Rosulek and graduate student Lance Roy wrote a paper in 2015 explaining the most efficient secure computation protocol at the time. They did not believe it was possible to do better, and after years of trying to prove that there was nothing better out there, Roy came to Rosulek with an out-of-the-box idea.

That crazy idea worked — 25% better than what Rosulek was trying to prove was the best thing out there.

Unless you’re familiar with software engineering, secure computation protocol is pretty hard to wrap your head around. Basically it is used when two or more parties want to compare information without actually sharing their individual information.

“One of my favorite examples is the city of Boston wanting to answer the question of whether there was a gender-based wage gap in the city’s tech sector,” Rosulek said. “The tech companies collectively computed the relevant aggregate statistics on their combined payroll data, but without any company needing to reveal its payroll data.”

This type of computation is achieved using a technique called garbled circuits, which churn out general-purpose secure computation protocols with just a few rounds of communication among the parties involved. The data that flows through garbled circuits is encrypted so that it remains secure.

In 2019 and 2020, Roy came up with the idea of “slicing and dicing” garbled circuits to make them more efficient than what was previously thought possible.

“If the way the garbled circuits were built was randomized — i.e., by rolling the dice — and some other information was kept secret, the slicing idea could be made secure,” Roy said. “Mike was really excited when I showed it to him, and during winter 2021 we refined the technique and wrote up the result.”

Roy and Rosulek presented their findings at the 41st annual International cryptology Conference, or Crypto 2021. They received an honorable mention for best paper among 100 papers, and Rosulek said that he and Roy were “pleasantly surprised” that the committee at the conference felt as excited about the idea as they did.

“What’s next on the research side is Lance and I working on trying to figure out whether we can once and for all say that this is the best that you can do,” Rosulek said. “The goal is to have this be a tool that software developers can use to build privacy enhancing features into this product.”

The OSU College of Engineering is the 10th largest engineering program based on undergraduate enrollment, receiving nearly $60 million in sponsored research awards in the 2019-20 fiscal year. It is the global leader in health-related engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing, clean water and energy, materials science, computing and resilient infrastructure.

Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_. 

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