DARPA Chooses Intel, Microsoft to Quest for Cryptography’s Holy Grail

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Microsoft and Intel will be working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and implement fully homomorphic encryption (FHE) in hardware. A breakthrough in this field would have a profound impact on cybersecurity.

The encryption schemes in use today all have a common weakness: decryption. You can encrypt data any way you like, but if you want to perform useful work with it, you have to decrypt it first. Homomorphic encryption removes this problem. Not only can you compute using encrypted data, but the output of your computation also remains encrypted. A fully homomorphic encryption scheme would be capable of performing all mathematical operations on any encrypted data without the need to decrypt it.

FHE is a sort of cryptographic Holy Grail. A lot of work has been done on the topic over the past decade, but all of the current implementation methods rely on software execution rather than dedicated hardware, and they run too slowly to be of much practical use. DARPA wants to change this via its Data Protection in Virtual Environments (DPRIVE) program. The government agency has selected four research teams to pursue the question, led by Duality Technologies, Galois, SRI International, and Intel. The teams are tasked with developing a hardware accelerator for FHE that can compete with the processing speed of unencrypted algorithms. The various teams are also tasked with evaluating different word sizes rather than sticking to the 64-bit words common in modern computing.

Intel plans to tackle the problem by developing an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) to address it. This is an interesting choice on Intel’s part, given some of the work that’s been done to implement FHE on Intel FPGAs. A 2019 paper by Microsoft engineers described a hypothetical FHE implementation dubbed “HEAX,” which demonstrated substantial performance…