When Meiklejohn began faculty at Brown in 2004, she found cryptography. This department of pc science appealed on to her puzzle dependancy—what was an encryption system, in spite of everything, however one other secret language demanding to be deciphered?
There was a maxim in cryptography, sometimes called Schneier’s legislation after the cryptographer Bruce Schneier. It asserted that anybody can develop an encryption system intelligent sufficient that they will’t themselves consider a strategy to break it. But, like all the most effective conundrums and mysteries that had fascinated Meiklejohn since childhood, one other particular person with a unique approach of approaching a cipher may take a look at that “unbreakable” system and see a strategy to crack it and unspool an entire world of decrypted revelations.
Learning the science of ciphers, Meiklejohn started to acknowledge the significance of privateness and the necessity for surveillance-resistant communications. She was not fairly a cypherpunk: The mental attraction of constructing and breaking codes drove her greater than any ideological drive to defeat surveillance. However like many cryptographers, she nonetheless got here to imagine within the want for actually unbreakable encryption, applied sciences that might carve out an area for delicate communications—whether or not dissidents organizing towards a repressive authorities or whistleblowers sharing secrets and techniques with journalists—the place no snoop may attain. She credited her intuitive acceptance of that precept to her years as an adolescent who stored to herself, making an attempt to take care of her personal privateness in a Manhattan house, with a federal prosecutor for a mom.
Meiklejohn confirmed actual expertise as a cryptographer and shortly turned an undergraduate educating assistant to Anna Lysyanskaya, a superb and extremely completed pc scientist. Lysyanskaya had herself studied beneath the legendary Ron Rivest, whose title was represented by the R within the RSA algorithm that shaped the premise for many fashionable encryption, used in all places from net browsers to encrypted e-mail to immediate messaging protocols. RSA was one of many few elementary encryption protocols that had not succumbed to Schneier’s legislation in additional than 30 years.
Lysyanskaya was on the time engaged on a pre-Bitcoin cryptocurrency referred to as eCash, first developed within the Nineteen Nineties by David Chaum, a cryptographer whose groundbreaking work on anonymity methods had made attainable applied sciences from VPNs to Tor. After ending her undergraduate diploma, Meiklejohn started a grasp’s diploma at Brown beneath Lysyanskaya’s wing, researching strategies to make Chaum’s eCash, a really nameless cost system, extra scalable and environment friendly.
The cryptocurrency scheme they have been laboring to optimize was, Meiklejohn admits in hindsight, tough to think about working in follow. Not like Bitcoin, it had a major problem: An nameless spender of eCash may basically forge a coin and cross it off to an unsuspecting recipient. When that recipient deposited the coin at a type of eCash financial institution, the financial institution may carry out a test that will reveal the coin to be a forgery and the fraudster’s anonymity protections could possibly be stripped away to disclose the id of the unhealthy actor. However by then, the fraudster may need already run off with their ill-gotten items.
Nonetheless, eCash had a novel benefit that made it an interesting system to work on: The anonymity it provided was actually uncrackable. The truth is, eCash was based mostly on a mathematical approach referred to as zero-knowledge proofs, which may set up the validity of a cost with out the financial institution or recipient studying anything in any respect concerning the spender or their cash. That mathematical sleight of hand meant that eCash was provably safe. Schneier’s legislation didn’t apply: No quantity of cleverness or computing energy would ever have the ability to undo its anonymity.
When Meiklejohn first heard about Bitcoin in 2011, she had began her PhD research at UCSD however was spending the summer season as a researcher at Microsoft. A buddy on the College of Washington had talked about to her that there was a brand new digital cost system that folks have been utilizing to purchase medication on websites just like the Silk Street. Meiklejohn had moved on from her eCash research by then; she was busy with different analysis—methods that will enable individuals to pay highway tolls with out revealing their private actions, as an illustration, and a thermal digicam approach that exposed PIN codes typed into an ATM by searching for warmth remnants on the keypad. So, with heads-down focus, she filed Bitcoin’s existence away in her mind, barely contemplating it once more for the following 12 months.
Then, at some point on a UCSD pc science division group hike in late 2012, a younger UCSD analysis scientist named Kirill Levchenko recommended to Meiklejohn that maybe they need to begin wanting into this burgeoning Bitcoin phenomenon. Levchenko was fascinated, he defined as they trekked across the jagged panorama of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, by Bitcoin’s distinctive proof-of-work system. That system demanded that anybody who needed to mine the forex expend monumental computing sources performing calculations— basically an enormous, automated puzzle-solving competitors—whose outcomes have been then copied into transactions on the blockchain. By then, formidable bitcoiners have been already growing customized mining microprocessors only for producing this unusual new type of cash, and Bitcoin’s ingenious system meant that any single unhealthy actor who would possibly need to write a false transaction into the blockchain must use a set of computer systems that possessed extra computational energy than all these many 1000’s of miners. It was a superb strategy that added as much as a safe forex with no central authority.