A die The perennial highlights of the International Association for Cryptologic Research Crypto Conference is the “guest talk”. For an hour each year, a prominent scholar shares a big idea or new perspective on the protocols, algorithms, and mathematical problems that underpin advanced encryption. It’s usually a deeply technical bacchanal, but this year was not. Prolific academic cryptographer Seny Kamara of Brown University had more in mind than formulas and theorems.
“So a real question is OK, well, what am I doing here, right?” Kamara asked the participants in the live broadcast. “Why am I giving a talk to Crypto if I’m not talking about technical stuff?” And, you know, I’m here basically because Ahmaud Arbery was killed in February, because Breonna Taylor was killed by a police officer in March, and because George Floyd was also killed by police officers in May. “
The conference, dubbed Crypto for the People and given on August 19, examined the question of who actually benefits from encryption technologies and advances in crypto research. It sounded like a call to reconsider research priorities that today largely serve the interests of governments and businesses rather than marginalized people, be they racial minorities, immigrants, women, the community. LGBTQ or others. As an immigrant and black American – and one of the few black academic cryptographers in the world – Kamara pointed out that even the open source community and movements like cypherpunks are not working directly to meet these needs. They focus on taking corporate power and developing technology to defend people from mass government surveillance and digital intrusion, but generally not on developing encryption technologies and new areas of abstract theory that are specifically motivated by the needs of underserved communities.
“As long as I was studying and working in cryptography and computing, for about 20 years now, it was always very clear to me that my own work and that of others were disconnected from my life experiences,” explains Kamara at WIRED. “I thought it might impact people’s privacy as a whole, but I didn’t think I would have cared about a thing when I was 13 or 15 and growing up in New York City. And this disconnect has always bothered me. “
Much of crypto research is abstract and mathematical – separated from real world conditions – that it can be easy to simply let all avenues of research exist only in that theoretical space. And Kamara argues that even when encryption technologies are brought to underserved communities, they come later from other research projects, rather than tailored to the needs of vulnerable people and the specific threats they face.
“As academics working on political issues, we motivate our work in grant applications and so on by arguing that it benefits people in one way or another,” says Abdoulaye Ndiaye, researcher in macroeconomics at New York University who discovered Kamara’s Crypto talk on Twitter. “However, the consumers of our research are other academics, government institutions, and in some areas, businesses. There is this underlying assumption that these entities will carry out the research and that it will impact on underserved people. Dr Kamara pointed out that in cryptography, government and business incentives are not necessarily aligned with underserved people, the missing link in that runoff. “
Encryption technologies offer protection to vulnerable groups around the world such as political dissidents, activists and journalists. Kamara’s lecture, however, showed that specially crafted cryptography can accomplish much more.
In her own research at Brown, for example, Kamara and her colleagues did work motivated by databases of law enforcement agencies in the United States that track down suspected criminals as possible gang members. In a 2015 audit of a California state platform called CalGang, for example, 42 people entered into the database were less than a year old. Out of a sample of 100 database entries, 13 of the people represented should not have been in the database at all, and 131 of the 563 evidence points used against the 100 people were not supported. .