IBMer earns "Genius Grant"

Craig Gentry's cryptography recognized by MacArthur Foundation

In 2009, computer scientist Craig Gentry solved a cryptography problem – one posed in 1978. The problem: can encrypted data be analyzed without being accessed? Thought impossible for more than 30 years, Craig’s “fully homomorphic encryption” technique did just that. And the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation took notice. They recognized the impact this solution may have on cloud computing and how we protect information on the web by naming him a MacArthur Fellow.

“It has the potential to pave the way for more secure cloud computing services – without having to decrypt or reveal original data,”  said Craig. His team later earned a patent for the efficient implementation of fully homomorphic encryption.

He explained to the Foundation how homomorphic encryption works with a physical analogy of the fictitious “Alice’s Jewelry Store.

“Alice wants her workers to turn raw materials into rings and necklaces, but she doesn't trust her workers. So, she creates these glove boxes that have locks on them. She then puts the raw materials inside and locks the box. The workers can stick their hands into the box's gloves to manipulate the raw materials to create the jewelry. And then she can unlock the box to remove the finished piece.

“This is what I try to do with cryptography (and could apply to cloud computing).”

Craig Gentry on what it means to earn the “genius grant” (its unofficial title since the first Fellows were named in 1981).

The MacArthur Foundation extends each Fellow “a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over five years, with no stipulations or reporting requirements, and allows recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.” And while the Foundations does lay out its process for choosing the Fellows, the award has achieved near-mythic status as no one can apply, no one knows if they are being considered, and when they’re told, they’re sworn to secrecy until the official announcement.

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