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