‘Zero knowledge’ keeps your secrets safe

Intrigued by topics that touch on mathematics, computer science, physics and neuroscience, Israel’s Prof. Shafrira Goldwasser has made far-reaching contributions to keeping your data safe on-line.   Making the Internet safe for ecommerce: Prof. Shafrira Goldwasser. If you feel secure …

Intrigued by topics that touch on mathematics, computer science, physics and neuroscience, Israel’s Prof. Shafrira Goldwasser has made far-reaching contributions to keeping your data safe on-line.

 

Professor-Shafrira-Goldwasser

Making the Internet safe for ecommerce: Prof. Shafrira Goldwasser.

If you feel secure keying your credit card information onto a website, thank Prof. Shafrira Goldwasser.

At the end of April, this Israeli professor traveled to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute to accept the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science for her fundamental contributions to cryptography theory, the basis of techniques for encoding anything from secret messages to financial information on the Internet.

Goldwasser helped devise a ‘zero-knowledge’ way to process information without seeing it – for example, to determine if a credit card is valid without knowing its numbers.

The scientist was born to Israeli parents in New York in 1958, returning to Tel Aviv in time for first grade. In high school, she discovered an affinity for math and physics. Though these were not traditionally “feminine” fields of study, her parents strongly encouraged her to pursue them. She went off to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University after graduation.

An awakening science

“Computer science was in the awakening stages then. Computers were used only by computer professionals in academia, the military, and industry. The notions of personal computers, the Internet, and engaging in continuous communication and financial transactions over the Internet did not yet exist,” Goldwasser tells ISRAEL21c. “But Carnegie Mellon had a strong computer science and applied math department even then.”

She noticed a marked difference between the few female students and the majority of males in her classes. “The men who took computer science classes had tinkered with computers at home and knew something about programming, while the women had never seen a computer. However, the women were noticeably more mathematical.”

In graduate school at UC-Berkeley, Goldwasser delved into computational theory, classifying and defining problems that could readily be solved by computer programs. During a course on number theory, her advisor posed the question of how two people might engage in a coin toss over a computer network or phone.

“Somehow this problem really intrigued me,” says Goldwasser. “I started to think about it obsessively.” She theorized that any sort of game without actual cards or playing pieces would have to involve coded messages, encryption for secrecy, and extra functionality to make virtual ‘moves’ such as choosing and discarding cards.

The foundations for e-purchasing

“Putting a card down is like committing to a decision, but you only later turn it over. How do I do this so the other player can’t guess what I am doing until a later stage?” The answer she discovered was randomized methods of encoding, which came to underlie all future protocols for secure Internet transactions and data privacy.

“I didn’t realize how ground-breaking it would be,” she says. “We had no notion of applications at that time.”

After Berkeley, Goldwasser studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and stayed on as a professor of computer science and engineering, a post she still holds part time. She met her husband, now a professor of computer science at Tel Aviv University, while on sabbatical in Jerusalem in 1987. They married in 1992 and eventually settled in Rehovot, the city where Goldwasser works with graduate computer science and applied mathematics students at the renowned Weizmann Institute of Science. Their two sons are in fourth grade and tenth grade, respectively.

Though she enjoys her time in the Cambridge world of MIT, she and her husband choose to live in Israel, where their boys benefit from what she describes as a signature Israeli parenting approach, which emphasizes the freedom to make choices. “People let their kids think and plan on their own, and that is invaluable to character building,” she asserts.

Goldwasser is currently intrigued by topics “on the border between mathematics, computer science, physics, and neuroscience.” Her contributions to the study of why certain real-life math problems cannot be easily solved by computers has changed the way scientists study what a computer can and cannot do.

Goldwasser’s previous accolades include two Godel Prizes in theoretical computer science, the RSA Award in Mathematics (for public-key cryptography), the Association for Computing Machinery’s Grace Murray Hopper Award, and the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award and Faculty Award for Women.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.