Intel Corp. today announced that it has been entrusted by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a chip that will enable applications to work with encrypted data without having to unscramble it first.
The chip will use an emerging encryption method known as fully homomorphic encryption to facilitate such processing. The project was announced today and is described as a multiyear program that will also include Microsoft Corp., which will assist with development.
In the enterprise, it’s standard practice to encrypt data both when it’s sitting in storage and while it’s zipping across the network. Encryption can prevent hackers from reading records if they gain access to them in a breach. But current cryptography methods don’t block all eavesdropping attempts.
The weak point is that encrypted data has to be unscrambled by the applications that use it before they can carry out computations. That creates opportunities for hackers to access sensitive information while it’s kept in a readable form. With the chip it will develop for DARPA, Intel hopes to reduce the risks stemming from the requirement to unscramble data by harnessing fully homomorphic encryption, or FHE for short, which allows applications to process information without decrypting it.
Theoretical work on FHE began more than four decades ago. The first successful implementation was developed by an IBM Corp. researcher in 2009, and since then computer scientists have worked on making the technology practical for enterprise issue. The main technical obstacle standing in the way is that FHE currently requires prohibitively large amounts of computing power, which is the challenge Intel wants to tackle.
The company’s goal is to build an application-specific integrated circuit specifically optimized for FHE that will reduce processing times by up to five orders of magnitude, or 100,000 times. The effort will involve teams from multiple units inside Intel. Among the participants will be engineers from Intel Labs, which works emerging technologies such as quantum computing, the company’s Design Engineering Group and its Data Platforms Group.
In the first phase of the project, Intel will develop the hardware building blocks of the chip along with necessary software. It also plans to invest in academic research into FHE. In the later phases of the project, Microsoft will test Intel’s chips together with the U.S. government by incorporating them into Azure cloud services. Microsoft will additionally help develop international standards around FHE, which could be an important step towards eventually commercializing the technology.
FHE has the potential to emerge as a powerful tool for securing sensitive data if Intel and Microsoft succeed in making it practical to use. In the healthcare industry, for example, the ability to process sensitive data without decrypting it could enable hospitals to more securely make medical information available to clinical researchers. Other highly regulated organizations such as banks that also work with sensitive data could potentially also find ways of putting the technology to use.
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