NSF CAREER Grant Aims to Improve Cryptography Theory and Practice

by Yaffi Spodek | Friday, Apr 10, 2020
New methods of coding will prevent information leakage and secure portable devices.

If you lost your cell phone, how secure would your personal information be from a potential hacker trying to steal your passwords and other sensitive information? Cryptography, or the study of techniques to ensure secure communication, is an increasingly popular field, and a researcher at the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science received a $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to delve further into this crucial topic. 

One of the important goals of the five-year grant, “CAREER: Towards Efficient Cryptography for Next Generation Applications” is to develop mathematical tools and new ways of coding to prevent information leakage and secure portable devices such as phones and iPads, under physical attacks.

“In the last decade, cryptographers have identified several directions of future security demands: safe outsourced environments, robustness against physical attacks for portable devices, and post-quantum security assurance,” said Feng-Hao Liu, Ph.D., principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. “Although exciting theories have been proposed, they are far from practical, which reduces their potential impacts. This project will provide critical thrusts towards complementing the missing links of the current theories and would bridge the gaps between theory and practice.” 

The project, which began in July, focuses on developing new mathematical theories to improve cryptography with tools to secure data in both outsourced and portable environments, in addition to post-quantum security. Specifically, the research focuses on several recently developed techniques that connect homomorphic computation with improved efficiency of identity-based encryption, stronger security, and physical attacks. The objective is to refine these recent approaches and design practically efficient solutions. The outcomes would yield multiple efficient post-quantum crypto systems and provide secure methods for more advanced applications. Techniques developed through this research are expected to bring critical insights for building practical solutions for enabling safe outsourcing cyberspace and security against physical attacks. 

The project has significant potential for broader impacts for FAU students and beyond.  “The study of cryptography is highly mathematical, and there is a lot of theory which might look intimidating,” Dr. Liu explained. “I want to develop several research-intensive courses for our students at the graduate and undergraduate level to make this research more accessible.” There are also plans to partner with high school students and help with outreach to underrepresented groups, including middle school students.

The CAREER award is one of the NSF’s most prestigious grants to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to advance the mission of their department or organization. The award is an extension of Dr. Liu’s current project, “CRII: SaTC: Practical Cryptographic Coding Schemes Against Memory Attacks,” at a significantly larger scale. That project focuses on developing practical non-malleable codes, which are encoding schemes that create practical methods to secure against memory attacks for both computers and portable devices. 

“The National Science Foundation, through its investments in science and engineering research and education, strengthens our nation’s capability to address a broad array of challenges in our efforts for a safer, more secure, and prosperous life,” said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean of the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science. “We are proud that Dr. Liu received one of the most prestigious awards for a junior scientist in academia, which will support his research work on cryptography.”