MIT's "Enigma" Project Secures Cloud Computation

Jul 23, 2015

What is it?

Google, Facebook, Dropbox... Anyone who stores your data online could give any or all of their customers' data up to the government, or hackers. How many of the services you use do you really trust with that data any further than necessary? MIT's Media Lab may have just shown us how to solve that. MIT are calling it "the future of data analysis". Blockchain, the protocol behind Bitcoin is designed to distribute transaction data securely amongst many nodes in a network, but in its current design, can only transfer data openly accessible to every node. A team of Bitcoin entrepreneurs and MIT staff have unveiled a platform for secure and certifiably private Blockchain-based cloud computing.

On the 30th of June, Guy Zyskind, Oz Nathan and Alex Pentland released a white paper outlining a new solution to the problem of secure multi-party computation. MIT's ascendancy in computer science is widely known, and so many have taken it for granted that the MIT Media Lab's Digital Currency Initiative, designed to explore Bitcoin and the Bitcoin blockchain protocol, would be a source for interesting developments. Now those expectations are coming into fruition in the Enigma Project, a privacy-centric cloud platform that uses the Bitcoin blockchain to enable storing encrypted data and compute with it without needing to fully reveal the data to any party involved.

How does it work?

A peer-to-peer network (like the BitTorrent protocol for file sharing), Enigma is a leap forward for the computer science field of secure multi-party computation. Enigma offers guaranteed privacy by a verifiable secret-sharing scheme. Data is stored on a distributed hashtable, which is unreadable by each individual “node” when divided into segments and shared across the network.

An external blockchain is used as the controller of the network and manages access control and identities while serving as a tamper-proof log of all data changes and events. Like its forerunner Bitcoin, Enigma uses economic incentives to keep the system functioning. Security deposits and fees ensure the continued operation, veracity and fairness of each node.

The problems expected by the Computer Science community are around the processing requirements its form of security would entail. Since the first working “homomorphic encryption”, which describes the type of black box data analysis Enigma entails, was described in 2009, it has been improved incrementally, but it still far from usable. It is likely that the Enigma team still have to improve its performance before it is practical for many potential uses.

Why is it important?

For the first time, users are able to share their data with cryptographic guarantees on their privacy. When data is stored online, it might stay completely secure, as long as it’s left untouched. The problem comes when you need to perform any operations on that data, like in cloud-platform data analytics, or running a search through your secured Dropbox data. In the moment of analysis, the data sits unencrypted in the cloud, and this is a major security weakness in existing setups.

Enigma enables different parties to jointly store and run computations on data while keeping the data completely private. Decentralization- that’s the overarching goal of the Blockchain as a protocol. Similar to Bitcoin, Enigma removes the need for a trusted third party like a bank, government or large corporation, enabling autonomous control of personal data. You can embrace the power of distributed storage and distributed computing without exposing yourself to the types of risks for your sensitive or business-critical data you’d otherwise be forced to, to tap into the data’s potential.

The public-sector has faced serious resistance to the use of Big Data to optimize public services and to gather official statistics about the population. The prime risk is that people’s data will fall into the wrong hands- it’s happened more than once. The Enigma protocol offers a solution; don’t expose the data at all. End-users can contribute their data in such a way that computations may be carried out, but with no access to individual records. All this, on a blockchain, means you don’t need to trust a central authority to tell you everything is working as it’s intended- you can get the proof yourself. This extends all the way through public sector data collection efforts- even to voting.

Mission-critical data transfers exist in a number of areas in the Internet of Things' broad spectrum. One recent example involved a Jeep remotely disabled on a highway by remote hackers, and back in February, a similar situation for Chevrolet vehicles. Enigma's protocol would allow continuous monitoring and security on these systems.

An Enigma-based cloud service would be truly disruptive to incumbents who are slow to adapt, particularly if they fail to respond to the challenge at all. If you’re still bearish on cloud computing and cloud storage for security reasons, you won’t have to be for much longer. Enigma has opened signup for beta testing invitations and will soon be deploying the first iteration. A truly secure cloud is in the making; traditional cloud vendors like Microsoft, Amazon and Google should prepare to be disrupted.


Vijay Michalik

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