Professor Josef Pieprzyk of CSIRO’s Data61 can now add International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) Fellow to his list of outstanding achievements in the field of data security. Below, Josef looks back on his career milestones, most impactful research, and proudest moments, and shares some insights into his next big breakthrough.
You’re the first Australian in the last five years to receive this recognition to be awarded a Fellowship by the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) – congratulations!
Thank you very much!
Tell us about your career history and the milestones that have contributed to your Fellowship.
Well, this goes back a long way! Another Australian IACR Fellow, Professor Jennifer Seberry, and I created a cryptography group in the ‘80s and we just grew.
We started working with a lot of talented people, received funding for positions, and started organising a local conference called AusCrypt, the first Cryptography conference on Australian soil, which debuted in 1988.
We later moved to Wollongong, where professors from around the world joined our research efforts. This resulted in the development of the first LOKI encryption algorithm, which was submitted to the Advanced Encryption Standard Competition held by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 1997.
While we didn't make it to the final, we received good feedback from fellow cryptographers about the high-level of security the algorithm provided. And we also got nice a certificate from NIST for the contribution.
This was the start of the development of a hashing algorithm called HAVAL. A family of hash algorithms, HAVAL produces digests with five lengths indicating their security level. It received excellent reviews and was unbroken for 10 years!
This Fellowship is, in a sense, a result of my work starting from early ‘90s to now, so I'm quite happy that the community recognised the contribution.
Is there anything that you particularly proud about?
I’ve played a role in the education of 40 completed PhD students, with quite a few of them now very well known, like Professor Willy Susilo from the University of Wollongong, who is a recognised member of the cryptography community. I’ve taught a Professor from Singapore, two Professors in Iran, one of which is a Dean, a Professor in Townsville, and two in Poland.
recipient of a Turing Award, which is the equivalent to Nobel Prize in computing.
We collaborated on research into multiparty computation (MPC), which allows parties to jointly evaluate a function for their private input arguments before the final result becomes public.
Currently, I’m working with PhD students on drawing insights from random numbers from astronomical objects like pulsars. This project is in collaboration with some researchers from astrophysics in CSIRO.
For transactions that need to be ultra-secure, randomness alone isn’t enough; the randomness sources have to be secure and bias-resistant. One possibility is using the intermittent radio emissions from pulsars – dying stars – as a randomness generator.
For example, what you could do is select a pulsar, and let the recipient know which one you’ve chosen. If the recipient is able to observe the pulsar too, you can direct antennas into the pulsar, then harvest the power pulses it generates.
Sometimes these are strong, sometimes weak, and they always exhibit quite interesting randomness. So, you can use those pulses to create a truly random sequence of bits, that can’t be manipulated because they happened millions of years ago.
If you don’t reveal your software, you can share secret randomness from a given pulsar. This allows you to manipulate and create some sort of key exchange or secret key exchange scheme between people around the world and even outside the world, like in cosmos, in space!
Ransomware is has become a global cybersecurity concern. What research are you doing into this area?
My team and I have designed a piece of software that will be able to recognise and distinguish encrypted files from non-encrypted files.
If there’s any attempt to overwrite a file on hard drive with an encrypted one, our software sends an alarm and blocks the attempt. We’re exploring ways to make this software even more efficient with the application of artificial intelligence, machine learning and neural networks.
And are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on?
When I was in Poland few years ago, I met Dr Jaroslaw Duda, who at the time had invented a new, very effective compression algorithm called asymmetric numeral system (ANS). The efficiency was so dramatic that Microsoft, Apple and Google adopted it for their purposes, compressing audio, video and image files.
But it wasn’t secure, especially if it was used for very low security applications like Internet of Things, such as sensors or cameras. So we tweaked the original compression algorithm to provide a relatively strong protection against eavesdropping.
Called Compcrypt, it’s a lightweight ANS-based solution, provides a layer of security to compression using a pseudorandom bit generator (PRBG) only. This solution takes advantage of the natural properties of ANS that allow the incorporation of authenticated encryption, while using as little cryptography as possible.
It's an ongoing joint project with people from CSIRO and Institute of Computer Science, Polish Academy of Science.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in cryptography?
It’s an extremely challenging, but extremely rewarding, area. To be cryptographer, you have to be good at mathematics, computing, programming, quantum mechanics, and electronic engineering.
There is a wide range of abilities, capabilities and ideas you can explore when you are doing research in cryptography, which is incredibly enriching.
And the community is wonderful! There are many wonderful groups and labs around the world, from the United States and Europe, to China, Japan and Australia.
What does it mean that the IACR has named you as fellow?
It’s very rewarding to receive a formal recognition of my research contribution and contribution to the crypto community.
And the company is excellent! if you take a look at the four other 2021 fellows, they are some extremely talented researchers. What they are working on now was just a dream when I first started.
The good company, the acknowledgement of my work, it’s terrific, maybe it’s a good excused for me to have a party?!
Take a look at some of Josef's research here.