(Finite) Fields — A Primer

So far on this blog we’ve given some introductory notes on a few kinds of algebraic structures in mathematics (most notably groups and rings, but also monoids). Fields are the next natural step in the progression.

If the reader is comfortable with rings, then a field is extremely simple to describe: they’re just commutative rings with 0 and 1, where every nonzero element has a multiplicative inverse. We’ll give a list of all of the properties that go into this “simple” definition in a moment, but an even more simple way to describe a field is as a place where “arithmetic makes sense.” That is, you get operations for +,-, \cdot , / which satisfy the expected properties of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. So whatever the objects in your field are (and sometimes they are quite weird objects), they behave like usual numbers in a very concrete sense.

So here’s the official definition of a field. We call a set F a field if it is endowed with two binary operations addition (+) and multiplication (\cdot, or just symbol juxtaposition) that have the following properties:

  • There is an element we call 0 which is the identity for addition.
  • Addition is commutative and associative.
  • Every element a \in F has a corresponding additive inverse b (which may equal a) for which a + b = 0.

These three properties are just the axioms of a (commutative) group, so we continue:

  • There is an element we call 1 (distinct from 0) which is the identity for multiplication.
  • Multiplication is commutative and associative.
  • Every nonzero element a \in F has a corresponding multiplicative inverse b (which may equal a) for which ab = 1.
  • Addition and multiplication distribute across each other as we expect.

If we exclude the existence of multiplicative inverses, these properties make F a commutative ring, and so we have the following chain of inclusions that describes it all

\displaystyle \textup{Fields} \subset \textup{Commutative Rings} \subset \textup{Rings} \subset \textup{Commutative Groups} \subset \textup{Groups}

The standard examples of fields are the real numbers \mathbb{R}, the rationals \mathbb{Q}, and the complex numbers \mathbb{C}. But of course there are many many more. The first natural question to ask about fields is: what can they look like?

For example, can there be any finite fields? A field F which as a set has only finitely many elements?

As we saw in our studies of groups and rings, the answer is yes! The simplest example is the set of integers modulo some prime p. We call them \mathbb{Z} / p \mathbb{Z}, or sometimes just \mathbb{Z}/p for short, and let’s rederive what we know about them now.

As a set, \mathbb{Z}/p consists of the integers \left \{ 0, 1, \dots, p-1 \right \}. The addition and multiplication operations are easy to define, they’re just usual addition and multiplication followed by a modulus. That is, we add by a + b \mod p and multiply with ab \mod p. This thing is clearly a commutative ring (because the integers form a commutative ring), so to show this is a field we need to show that everything has a multiplicative inverse.

There is a nice fact that allows us to do this: an element a has an inverse if and only if the only way for it to divide zero is the trivial way 0a = 0. Here’s a proof. For one direction, suppose a divides zero nontrivially, that is there is some c \neq 0 with ac = 0. Then if a had an inverse b, then 0 = b(ac) = (ba)c = c, but that’s very embarrassing for c because it claimed to be nonzero. Now suppose a only divides zero in the trivial way. Then look at all possible ways to multiply a by other nonzero elements of F. No two can give you the same result because if ax = ay then (without using multiplicative inverses) a(x-y) = 0, but we know that a can only divide zero in the trivial way so x=y. In other words, the map “multiplication by a” is injective. Because the set of nonzero elements of F is finite you have to hit everything (the map is in fact a bijection), and some x will give you ax = 1.

Now let’s use this fact on \mathbb{Z}/p in the obvious way. Since p is a prime, there are no two smaller numbers a, b < p so that ab = p. But in \mathbb{Z}/p the number p is equivalent to zero (mod p)! So \mathbb{Z}/p has no nontrivial zero divisors, and so every element has an inverse, and so it’s a finite field with p elements.

The next question is obvious: can we get finite fields of other sizes? The answer turns out to be yes, but you can’t get finite fields of any size. Let’s see why.

Characteristics and Vector Spaces

Say you have a finite field k (lower-case k is the standard letter for a field, so let’s forget about F). Beacuse the field is finite, if you take 1 and keep adding it to itself you’ll eventually run out of field elements. That is, n = 1 + 1 + \dots + 1 = 0 at some point. How do I know it’s zero and doesn’t keep cycling never hitting zero? Well if at two points n = m \neq 0, then n-m = 0 is a time where you hit zero, contradicting the claim.

Now we define \textup{char}(k), the characteristic of k, to be the smallest n (sums of 1 with itself) for which n = 0. If there is no such n (this can happen if k is infinite, but doesn’t always happen for infinite fields), then we say the characteristic is zero. It would probably make more sense to say the characteristic is infinite, but that’s just the way it is. Of course, for finite fields the characteristic is always positive. So what can we say about this number? We have seen lots of example where it’s prime, but is it always prime? It turns out the answer is yes!

For if ab = n = \textup{char}(k) is composite, then by the minimality of n we get a,b \neq 0, but ab = n = 0. This can’t happen by our above observation, because being a zero divisor means you have no inverse! Contradiction, sucker.

But it might happen that there are elements of k that can’t be written as 1 + 1 + \dots + 1 for any number of terms. We’ll construct examples in a minute (in fact, we’ll classify all finite fields), but we already have a lot of information about what those fields might look like. Indeed, since every field has 1 in it, we just showed that every finite field contains a smaller field (a subfield) of all the ways to add 1 to itself. Since the characteristic is prime, the subfield is a copy of \mathbb{Z}/p for p = \textup{char}(k). We call this special subfield the prime subfield of k.

The relationship between the possible other elements of k and the prime subfield is very neat. Because think about it: if k is your field and F is your prime subfield, then the elements of k can interact with F just like any other field elements. But if we separate k from F (make a separate copy of F), and just think of k as having addition, then the relationship with F is that of a vector space! In fact, whenever you have two fields k \subset k', the latter has the structure of a vector space over the former.

Back to finite fields, k is a vector space over its prime subfield, and now we can impose all the power and might of linear algebra against it. What’s it’s dimension? Finite because k is a finite set! Call the dimension m, then we get a basis v_1, \dots, v_m. Then the crucial part: every element of k has a unique representation in terms of the basis. So they are expanded in the form

\displaystyle f_1v_1 + \dots + f_mv_m

where the f_i come from F. But now, since these are all just field operations, every possible choice for the f_i has to give you a different field element. And how many choices are there for the f_i? Each one has exactly |F| = \textup{char}(k) = p. And so by counting we get that k has p^m many elements.

This is getting exciting quickly, but we have to pace ourselves! This is a constraint on the possible size of a finite field, but can we realize it for all choices of p, m? The answer is again yes, and in the next section we’ll see how.  But reader be warned: the formal way to do it requires a little bit of familiarity with ideals in rings to understand the construction. I’ll try to avoid too much technical stuff, but if you don’t know what an ideal is, you should expect to get lost (it’s okay, that’s the nature of learning new math!).

Constructing All Finite Fields

Let’s describe a construction. Take a finite field k of characteristic p, and say you want to make a field of size p^m. What we need to do is construct a field extension, that is, find a bigger field containing k so that the vector space dimension of our new field over k is exactly m.

What you can do is first form the ring of polynomials with coefficients in k. This ring is usually denoted k[x], and it’s easy to check it’s a ring (polynomial addition and multiplication are defined in the usual way). Now if I were speaking to a mathematician I would say, “From here you take an irreducible monic polynomial p(x) of degree m, and quotient your ring by the principal ideal generated by p. The result is the field we want!”

In less compact terms, the idea is exactly the same as modular arithmetic on integers. Instead of doing arithmetic with integers modulo some prime (an irreducible integer), we’re doing arithmetic with polynomials modulo some irreducible polynomial p(x). Now you see the reason I used p for a polynomial, to highlight the parallel thought process. What I mean by “modulo a polynomial” is that you divide some element f in your ring by p as much as you can, until the degree of the remainder is smaller than the degree of p(x), and that’s the element of your quotient. The Euclidean algorithm guarantees that we can do this no matter what k is (in the formal parlance, k[x] is called a Euclidean domain for this very reason). In still other words, the “quotient structure” tells us that two polynomials f, g \in k[x] are considered to be the same in k[x] / p if and only if f - g is divisible by p. This is actually the same definition for \mathbb{Z}/p, with polynomials replacing numbers, and if you haven’t already you can start to imagine why people decided to study rings in general.

Let’s do a specific example to see what’s going on. Say we’re working with k = \mathbb{Z}/3 and we want to compute a field of size 27 = 3^3. First we need to find a monic irreducible polynomial of degree 3. For now, I just happen to know one: p(x) = x^3 - x + 1. In fact, we can check it’s irreducible, because to be reducible it would have to have a linear factor and hence a root in \mathbb{Z}/3. But it’s easy to see that if you compute p(0), p(1), p(2) and take (mod 3) you never get zero.

So I’m calling this new ring

\displaystyle \frac{\mathbb{Z}/3[x]}{(x^3 - x + 1)}

It happens to be a field, and we can argue it with a whole lot of ring theory. First, we know an irreducible element of this ring is also prime (because the ring is a unique factorization domain), and prime elements generate maximal ideals (because it’s a principal ideal domain), and if you quotient by a maximal ideal you get a field (true of all rings).

But if we want to avoid that kind of argument and just focus on this ring, we can explicitly construct inverses. Say you have a polynomial f(x), and for illustration purposes we’ll choose f(x) = x^4 + x^2 - 1. Now in the quotient ring we could do polynomial long division to find remainders, but another trick is just to notice that the quotient is equivalent to the condition that x^3 = x - 1. So we can reduce f(x) by applying this rule to x^4 = x^3 x to get

\displaystyle f(x) = x^2 + x(x-1) - 1 = 2x^2 - x - 1

Now what’s the inverse of f(x)? Well we need a polynomial g(x) = ax^2 + bx + c whose product with f gives us something which is equivalent to 1, after you reduce by x^3 - x + 1. A few minutes of algebra later and you’ll discover that this is equivalent to the following polynomial being identically 1

\displaystyle (a-b+2c)x^2 + (-3a+b-c)x + (a - 2b - 2c) = 1

In other words, we get a system of linear equations which we need to solve:

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} a & - & b & + & 2c & = 0 \\ -3a & + & b & - & c &= 0 \\ a & - & 2b & - & 2c &= 1 \end{aligned}

And from here you can solve with your favorite linear algebra techniques. This is a good exercise for working in fields, because you get to abuse the prime subfield being characteristic 3 to say terrifying things like -1 = 2 and 6b = 0. The end result is that the inverse polynomial is 2x^2 + x + 1, and if you were really determined you could write a program to compute these linear systems for any input polynomial and ensure they’re all solvable. We prefer the ring theoretic proof.

In any case, it’s clear that taking a polynomial ring like this and quotienting by a monic irreducible polynomial gives you a field. We just control the size of that field by choosing the degree of the irreducible polynomial to our satisfaction. And that’s how we get all finite fields!

One Last Word on Irreducible Polynomials

One thing we’ve avoided is the question of why irreducible monic polynomials exist of all possible degrees m over any \mathbb{Z}/p (and as a consequence we can actually construct finite fields of all possible sizes).

The answer requires a bit of group theory to prove this, but it turns out that the polynomial x^{p^m} - x has all degree m monic irreducible polynomials as factors. But perhaps a better question (for computer scientists) is how do we work over a finite field in practice? One way is to work with polynomial arithmetic as we described above, but this has some downsides: it requires us to compute these irreducible monic polynomials (which doesn’t sound so hard, maybe), to do polynomial long division every time we add, subtract, or multiply, and to compute inverses by solving a linear system.

But we can do better for some special finite fields, say where the characteristic is 2 (smells like binary) or we’re only looking at F_{p^2}. The benefit there is that we aren’t forced to use polynomials. We can come up with some other kind of structure (say, matrices of a special form) which happens to have the same field structure and makes computing operations relatively painless. We’ll see how this is done in the future, and see it applied to cryptography when we continue with our series on elliptic curve cryptography.

Until then!

Elliptic Curves as Elementary Equations

Finding solutions to systems of polynomial equations is one of the oldest and deepest problems in all of mathematics. This is broadly the domain of algebraic geometry, and mathematicians wield some of the most sophisticated and abstract tools available to attack these problems.

The elliptic curve straddles the elementary and advanced mathematical worlds in an interesting way. On one hand, it’s easy to describe in elementary terms: it’s the set of solutions to a cubic function of two variables. But despite how simple they seem deep theorems govern their behavior, and many natural questions about elliptic curves are still wide open. Since elliptic curves provide us with some of the strongest and most widely used encryption protocols, understanding elliptic curves more deeply would give insight into the security (or potential insecurity) of these protocols.

Our first goal in this series is to treat elliptic curves as mathematical objects, and derive the elliptic curve group as the primary object of study. We’ll see what “group” means next time, and afterward we’ll survey some of the vast landscape of unanswered questions. But this post will be entirely elementary, and will gently lead into the natural definition of the group structure on an elliptic curve.

Elliptic Curves as Equations

The simplest way to describe an elliptic curve is as the set of all solutions to a specific kind of polynomial equation in two real variables, x,y. Specifically, the equation has the form:

\displaystyle y^2 = x^3 + ax + b

Where a,b are real numbers such that

\displaystyle -16(4a^3 + 27b^2) \neq 0

One would naturally ask, “Who the hell came up with that?” A thorough answer requires a convoluted trip through 19th and 20th-century mathematical history, but it turns out that this is a clever form of a very natural family of equations. We’ll elaborate on this in another post, but for now we can give an elementary motivation.

Say you have a pyramid of spheres whose layers are squares, like the one below


We might wonder when it’s the case that we can rearrange these spheres into a single square. Clearly you can do it for a pyramid of height 1 because a single ball is also a 1×1 square (and one of height zero if you allow a 0x0 square). But are there any others?

This question turns out to be a question about an elliptic curve. First, recall that the number of spheres in such a pyramid is given by

\displaystyle 1 + 4 + 9 + 16 + \dots + n^2 = \frac{n(n+1)(2n+1)}{6}

And so we’re asking if there are any positive integers y such that

\displaystyle y^2 = \frac{x(x+1)(2x+1)}{6}

Here is a graph of this equation in the plane. As you admire it, though, remember that we’re chiefly interested in integer solutions.


The equation doesn’t quite have the special form we mentioned above, but the reader can rest assured (and we’ll prove it later) that one can transform our equation into that form without changing the set of solutions. In the meantime let’s focus on the question: are there any integer-valued points on this curve besides (0,0) and (1,1)? The method we use to answer this question comes from ancient Greece, and is due to Diophantus. The idea is that we can use the two points we already have to construct a third point. This method is important because it forms the basis for our entire study of elliptic curves.

Take the line passing through (0,0) and  (1,1), given by the equation y = x, and compute the intersection of this line and the original elliptic curve. The “intersection” simply means to solve both equations simultaneously. In this case it’s

\begin{aligned} y^2 &= \frac{x(x+1)(2x+1)}{6} \\ y &= x \end{aligned}

It’s clear what to do: just substitute the latter in for the former. That is, solve

\displaystyle x^2 = \frac{x(x+1)(2x+1)}{6}

Rearranging this into a single polynomial and multiplying through by 3 gives

\displaystyle x^3 - \frac{3x^2}{2} + \frac{x}{2} = 0

Factoring cubics happens to be easy, but let’s instead use a different trick that will come up again later. Let’s use a fact that is taught in elementary algebra and precalculus courses and promptly forgotten, that the sum of the roots of any polynomial is \frac{-a_{n-1}}{a_n}, where a_{n} is the leading coefficient and a_{n-1} is the next coefficient. Here a_n = 1, so the sum of the roots is 3/2. This is useful because we already know two roots, namely the solutions 0 and 1 we used to define the system of equations in the first place. So the third root satisfies

\displaystyle r + 0 + 1 = \frac{3}{2}

And it’s r = 1/2, giving the point (1/2, 1/2) since the line was y=x. Because of the symmetry of the curve, we also get the point (1/2, -1/2).

Here’s a zoomed-in picture of what we just did to our elliptic curve. We used the two pink points (which gave us the dashed line) to find the purple point.


The bad news is that these two new points don’t have integer coordinates. So it doesn’t answer our question. The good news is that now we have more points! So we can try this trick again to see if it will give us still more points, and hope to find some that are integer valued. (It sounds like a hopeless goal, but just hold out a bit longer). If we try this trick again using (1/2, -1/2) and (1,1), we get the equation

\displaystyle (3x - 2)^2 = \frac{x(x+1)(2x+1)}{6}

And redoing all the algebraic steps we did before gives us the solution x=24, y=70. In other words, we just proved that

\displaystyle 1^2 + 2^2 + \dots + 24^2 = 70^2

Great! Here’s another picture showing what we just did.


In reality we don’t care about this little puzzle. Its solution might be a fun distraction (and even more distracting: try to prove there aren’t any other integer solutions), but it’s not the real treasure. The mathematical gem is the method of finding the solution. We can ask the natural question: if you have two points on an elliptic curve, and you take the line between those two points, will you always get a third point on the curve?

Certainly the answer is no. See this example of two points whose line is vertical.


But with some mathematical elbow grease, we can actually force it to work! That is, we can define things just right so that the line between any two points on an elliptic curve will always give you another point on the curve. This sounds like mysterious black magic, but it lights the way down a long mathematical corridor of new ideas, and is required to make sense of using elliptic curves for cryptography.

Shapes of Elliptic Curves

Before we continue, let’s take a little detour to get a good feel for the shapes of elliptic curves. We have defined elliptic curves by a special kind of equation (we’ll give it a name in a future post). During most of our study we won’t be able to make any geometric sense of these equations. But for now, we can pretend that we’re working over real numbers and graph these equations in the plane.

Elliptic curves in the form y^2 = x^3 + ax + b have a small handful of different shapes that we can see as a,b vary:


The problem is when we cross the point at which the rounded part pinches off in the first animation, and the circular component appears in the second. At those precise moments, the curve becomes “non-smooth” (or singular), and for reasons we’ll see later this is bad. The condition from the beginning of the article (that -16(4a^3 + 27b^2) \neq 0) ensures that these two cases are excluded from consideration, and it’s one crucial part of our “elbow grease” to ensure that lines behave nicely.

The “canonical” shape of the elliptic curve is given by the specific example y^2 = x^3 - x + 1. It’s the example that should pop up whenever you imagine an elliptic curve, and it’s the example we’ll use for all of our pictures.


So in the next post we’ll roll up our sleeves and see exactly how “drawing lines” can be turned into an algebraic structure on an elliptic curve.

Until then!

Introducing Elliptic Curves

With all the recent revelations of government spying and backdoors into cryptographic standards, I am starting to disagree with the argument that you should never roll your own cryptography. Of course there are massive pitfalls and very few people actually need home-brewed cryptography, but history has made it clear that blindly accepting the word of the experts is not an acceptable course of action. What we really need is more understanding of cryptography, and implementing the algorithms yourself is the best way to do that. [1]

For example, the crypto community is quickly moving away from the RSA standard (which we covered in this blog post). Why? It turns out that people are getting just good enough at factoring integers that secure key sizes are getting too big to be efficient. Many experts have been calling for the security industry to switch to Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC), because, as we’ll see, the problem appears to be more complex and hence achieves higher security with smaller keys. Considering the known backdoors placed by the NSA into certain ECC standards, elliptic curve cryptography is a hot contemporary issue. If nothing else, understanding elliptic curves allows one to understand the existing backdoor.

I’ve seen some elliptic curve primers floating around with all the recent talk of cryptography, but very few of them seem to give an adequate technical description [2], and legible implementations designed to explain ECC algorithms aren’t easy to find (I haven’t found any).

So in this series of posts we’re going to get knee deep in a mess of elliptic curves and write a full implementation. If you want motivation for elliptic curves, or if you want to understand how to implement your own ECC, or you want to understand the nuts and bolts of an existing implementation, or you want to know some of the major open problems in the theory of elliptic curves, this series is for you.

The series will have the following parts:

  1. Elliptic curves as elementary equations
  2. The algebraic structure of elliptic curves
  3. Points on elliptic curves as Python objects
  4. Elliptic curves over finite fields
    1. Finite fields primer (just mathematics)
    2. Programming with finite fields
    3. Back to elliptic curves
  5. Diffie-Hellman key exchange
  6. Shamir-Massey-Omura encryption and Digital Signatures

Along the way we’ll survey a host of mathematical topics as needed, including group theory, projective geometry, and the theory of cryptographic security. We won’t assume any familiarity with these topics ahead of time, but we do intend to develop some maturity through the post without giving full courses on the side-topics. When appropriate, we’ll refer to the relevant parts of the many primers this blog offers.

A list of the posts in the series (as they are published) can be found on the Main Content page. And as usual all programs produced in the making of this series will be available on this blog’s Github page.

For anyone looking for deeper mathematical information about elliptic curves (more than just cryptography), you should check out the standard book, The Arithmetic of Elliptic Curves.

[1] Okay, what people usually mean is that you shouldn’t use your own cryptography for things that actually matter, but I think a lot of the warnings are interpreted or extended to, “Don’t bother implementing cryptographic algorithms, just understand them at a fuzzy high level.” I imagine this results in fewer resources for people looking to learn cryptography and the mathematics behind it, and at least it prohibits them from appreciating how much really goes into an industry-strength solution. And this mindset is what made the NSA backdoor so easy: the devil was in the details.
[2] From my heavily biased standpoint as a mathematician.

Why Theoretical Computer Scientists Aren’t Worried About Privacy

There has been a lot of news recently on government surveillance of its citizens. The biggest two that have pervaded my news feeds are the protests in Turkey, which in particular have resulted in particular oppression of social media users, and the recent light on the US National Security Agency’s widespread “backdoor” in industry databases at Google, Verizon, Facebook, and others. It appears that the facts are in flux, as some companies have denied their involvement in this program, but regardless of the truth the eye of the public has landed firmly on questions of privacy.

Barack Obama weighed in on the controversy as well, being quoted as saying,

You can’t have 100% security and 100% privacy, and also zero inconvenience.

I don’t know what balance the US government hopes to strike, but what I do know is that privacy and convenience are technologically possible, and we need not relinquish security to attain it.

Before I elaborate, let me get my personal beliefs out of the way. I consider the threat of terrorism low compared to the hundreds of other ways I can die. I should know, as I personally have been within an \varepsilon fraction of my life for all \varepsilon > 0 (when I was seven I was hit by a bus, proclaimed dead, and revived). So I take traffic security much more seriously than terrorism, and the usual statistics will back me up in claiming one would be irrational to do otherwise. On the other hand, I also believe that I only need so much privacy. So I don’t mind making much of my personal information public, and I opt in to every one of Google’s tracking services in the hopes that my user experience can be improved. Indeed it has, as services like Google Now will, e.g., track my favorite bands for me based on my Google Play listening and purchasing habits, and alert me when there are concerts in my area. If only it could go one step further and alert me of trending topics in theoretical computer science! I have much more utility for timely knowledge of these sorts of things than I do for the privacy of my Facebook posts. Of course, ideologically I’m against violating privacy as a matter of policy, but this is a different matter. One can personally loathe a specific genre of music and still recognize its value and one’s right to enjoy it.

But putting my personal beliefs aside, I want to make it clear that there is no technological barrier to maintaining privacy and utility. This may sound shocking, but it rings true to the theoretical computer scientist. Researchers in cryptography have experienced this feeling many times, that their wildest cryptographic dreams are not only possible but feasible! Public-key encryption and digital signatures, secret sharing on a public channel, zero-knowledge verification, and many other protocols have been realized quite soon after being imagined. There are still some engineering barriers to implementing these technologies efficiently in large-scale systems, but with demand and a few years of focused work there is nothing stopping them from being used by the public. I want to use this short post to describe two of the more recent ideas that have pervaded the crypto community and provide references for further reading.

Differential Privacy and Fully Homomorphic Encryption

There are two facts which are well known in theoretical computer science that the general public is not aware of. The first is about the privacy of databases:

There is a way to mine information from a database without the ability to inspect individual entries in the database.

This is known as differential privacy. The second is no less magical:

There are secure encryption schemes which allow one to run programs on encrypted data and produce encrypted results, without the ability to decrypt the data.

This is known as fully homomorphic encryption. 

The implications of these two facts should be obvious: search engines need not know our queries but can still fetch us search results and mine our information to serve ads, Facebook need not have access to our personal data but may still accurately predict new friends, grocery stores can even know what products to place side by side without knowing what any individual customer has purchased. Banks could process our transactions without knowing the amounts involved, or even the parties involved. Perhaps most importantly, governments can have access to databases (in the form of differentially private queries) and mine for the existence of threats without violating any individual user’s privacy. If they get an indication of a terrorist threat, then they can use the usual channels (court orders) to get access to specific individual data.

It’s easy to argue that these techniques will never become mainstream enough for individuals to benefit from it. Indeed, we’ve had cryptography for many years but few average users actively encrypt their communication for a lack of convenience. And then there are questions of policy: why would any company relinquish the ability to work directly with user data? And the cost of rearchitecturing existing services to utilize these technologies would be enough to dissuade most business leaders.

But the point of all this is that these are problems of policy that could in principle be solved without waiting for governments and corporations to get their act together. With enough demand for such services and with enough technologically-minded entrepreneurs (I’m looking at you, Silicon Valley), it would be just a matter of time before the world was differentially private. Mathematics cannot be revoked or legislated away.

Fully Homomorphic Encryption

A fully homomorphic encryption scheme is a normal encryption scheme (two functions “enc” and “dec” to encrypt and decrypt) with one additional function, which we’ll call “eval.” Very roughly, eval accepts as input the text of a program and a ciphertext, and produces as output a ciphertext such that the following diagram commutes:


That is, m is our message, and \textup{eval} runs f on the encrypted version of our message. In practice this happens by lifting two operations, multiplication and addition, from plaintexts (which are usually number-representations of letters) to ciphertexts (again usually numbers). Once this is done one can simulate the functionality of an arbitrary circuit on the encrypted data without decrypting it. Those readers who have been following our category theory series will recognize these sorts of diagrams as being functorial. [Actually, at the time of this writing we have yet to look at functors, but we will soon!] So perhaps a better term would be “functorial encryption.”

I should emphasize: a truly homomorphic encryption scheme has the ability to run any computable function on the encrypted data. There is no loss of functionality in preserving the privacy from the program runner. The main use of this is to maintain privacy while deferring large computations to the cloud. We do this all the time, e.g. a search query, but it also applies to big websites like Reddit, which operate entirely on Amazon Web Services.

Fully homomorphic encryption was first envisaged by Rivest, Adleman (two of the inventors of RSA), and Dertouzos in the late seventies, mainly because the RSA encryption scheme is close to being homomorphic (one can multiply ciphertexts, but not add them). In 2009, Craig Gentry released the first working fully-homomorphic scheme based on the mathematical theory of ideal lattices, and later that year he (with a group of other researchers) came up with a second system that is arguably as simple as RSA; it operates on integers with modular arithmetic.

Gentry has produced a lot of research since then in homomorphic encryption, but the interested reader should probably start with his tutorial paper describing his arithmetic-based system. From there, there are existing implementations in Python (using Sage) and C++, both of which are freely available on github.

Differential Privacy

The main idea of differential privacy is that one can add noise to statistical data to protect the identities of individual records. Slightly more rigorously, a randomized algorithm f is said to be \varepsilon-differentially private if for all possible datasets (inputs) D_1, D_2 which differ on a single record, and all possible collections of outputs y of f, the probability of correctly guessing D_1 from y is not significantly different from that of D_2. In particular, their quotient is at most e^{\varepsilon} (this choice of using e is arbitrary, but makes the analysis nicer).

The motivation for differential privacy came from two notable events in which companies released “anonymized” data which was partially de-anonymized because it was too specific. The first was the million-dollar Netflix Prize contest to develop a better recommendation algorithm, and the second was the release of the Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission medical database. As such, many companies are very strict with how they handle their user data, and information sharing the medical community is practically nonexistent.

There are many known differentially private algorithms, and they’re much stronger than one would imagine at first. One can run random forests of decision trees, network trace analysis, query-click analysis, certain forms of clustering, and a whole host of combinatorial optimization problems. For a gentle introduction to differential privacy, see Christine Task’s lecture video, a Practical Beginner’s Guide to Differential Privacy. There is also an influential survey from Microsoft Research of Dwork. These go into much more detail about the abilities and inabilities of differential privacy than I could do here.

If there’s one thing to take away from this discussion, it’s that efficient protocols for ensuring privacy are out there waiting to be implemented in software. So while we complain and listen to others complain about governments violating our liberties (and indeed, this discussion is extremely important to have), let’s do a little mathematics, do a little computer science, and figure out how to make privacy the standard of measure in software.

Until next time!