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Why Cryptomania?

February 23, 2010 1 comment

The title of this blog comes from a very interesting paper by Russell Impagliazzo titled “My Personal View of Average-Case Complexity”. In this paper, he describes five possible worlds we live in and their implications to computer science. It’s an absolutely fascinating read and a you can find a terse summary here. However, for the lay person, I will try to explain what Cryptomania refers to.

In complexity theory, we are constantly dealing with the computational powers of various machines derived from the seminal Turing Machine. Two of the most important classes among these, central to the field, are the classes P and NP. Many people might have heard of the long standing open problem of whether P=NP?

Intuitively, one can say that, if P=NP, then we’d be in a world gifted with algorithms that run in polynomial time for a very large class of problems. This includes problems in routing, scheduling, graph coloring, and a host of other important problems. (For more details, see the class of NP-Complete problems). This is the first world that Impagliazzo imagines. In this world, aptly titled Algorithmica, we have fast algorithms (albeit probabilistic) for a huge host of difficult (as of today), but nevertheless, important problems.

In cryptography, however, we require problems that are fundamentally hard to solve, so that, we can design systems where in no adversarial (or malicious) person can gain access to a secret without solving these hard problems in the first place. Since almost all cryptographic protocols can eventually be broken by an adversary searching the entire space of possible solutions (there are exceptions, for eg. schemes that are information theoretically secure in the sense that there is no information whatsoever for the adversary to “find”), we settle ourselves to creating schemes breaking whom will necessitate an adversary work in the order of tens or hundreds of years.

Therefore, central to cryptography, is the presence of hard problems which fundamentally require anyone to expend exponential time (and/or space) to solve. Unfortunately, till date, there are no such guaranteed hard problems although we have several interesting candidates. One might, initially, imagine an optimistic dichotomy that dictates that we either have fast algorithms for potentially all problems, killing any hopes of cryptography, but making our lives easier in many other ways, or we instead have a world where there are several important problems (such as routing) that are hard, but we can take solace in the fact that the existence of these hard problems makes cryptography possible.

Unfortunately, the notion of hardness has a subtle nuance, which this paper addresses. Even if P does not equal to NP (to the consternation of algorithmists), we are in no way guaranteed that cryptography exists. Because, we require problems that are hard not just for some instances, but also, additionally, hard for an average instance (i.e., an instance chosen at random) which is referred to, in complexity theory, as “average-case hardness”.

The paper then proceeds to use this idea to hypothesize four more possible worlds we exist in, and their implications in some detail. The last of these worlds is aptly named Cryptomania where, we not only have such average-case hard problems, but also special classes of functions that are hard, called trapdoor functions which are immensely useful in cryptography and allows us to construct public-key schemes, i.e., schemes where people can exchange secrets without having ever interacted before, in a secure manner.

Already, we have strong indications that lead us in the direction of P≠NP, but it’s everyone’s hope that we go a few steps further and find ourselves in Cryptomania; sooner rather than later!

PS: A special thanks to Vimal, my room-mate, for lending a patient ear, giving me an opportunity to elucidate my thoughts, and for encouraging me to start blogging!

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