The new Enigma

MIT’s Enigma project is a decentralised computation platform with guaranteed privacy

An enigma is someone or something that is mysterious or puzzling.To this end researchers at MIT are working on a new Enigma, which allows for computation involving sensitive data without revealing information.

Enigma’s historical namesake was built by German engineer Arthur Scherbius. It was a mechanical device used to encrypt secret military messages. The Allies’ efforts to break Enigma are considered to have had a significant impact on the course of World War II.

A killer privacy app?

Cyber security and breaches that expose individuals’ private data are major — and growing — concerns. This, then, could be a killer app.

“Enigma is a decentralized cloud platform with guaranteed privacy. Private data is stored, shared and analyzed without ever being fully revealed to any party,” the project’s home page states.

In the current world we have two choices: Encrypt data to protect it or don’t encrypt and face the risks.There is no middle ground; while data is protected through encryption, it is effectively unusable.

For instance, privacy laws are all about protecting the personal data that is stored at various institutions.To secure this then strong encryption is applied to protect this data ‘at rest’ and also ‘in transport’.

But the problem is if we want to actually just use this data to, for example, plot the suburbs or states where members of our service's user base are located or calculate an average salary.

Even obtaining some kind of average figure based on the data of members of a particular group is not possible without decrypting.

The grey zone

From the current binary, black or white scenario, Enigma allows for ‘grey’.

Enigma is based on the concept of homomorphic encryption, which allows encrypted data to be operated on without seeing the actual data.It works as a peer-to-peer network and enables anonymous untrusted parties to use sensitive data without the need for a third party intermediary.

The geniuses behind this development are MIT’s Guy Zyskind, Oz Nathan and Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland.

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“Enigma is a decentralized computation platform with guaranteed privacy,” states a paper authored by the three.

“Our goal is to enable developers to build ’privacy by design’, end-to-end decentralized applications, without a trusted third party...

“Today, sharing data is an irreversible process; once it is sent, there is no way to take it back or limit how it is used. Allowing access to data for secure computations is reversible and controllable, since no one but the original data owner(s) ever see the raw data. This presents a fundamental change in current approaches to data analysis.”

What’s the secret sauce?

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The technology behind Bitcoin — the blockchain — is Enigma’s secret sauce. Instead of data being stored in one large encrypted database, it is actually stored in smaller private databases or ledgers, each within a separate node.Thus the large scale data leakage can’t happen.

A key feature of Enigma is that you, as a private individual, can provide access to information or parts that you allow to be disclosed. Such permission can be provided or revoked, just as quickly.

This is a big deal and could revolutionise how we interact with others and indeed what we allow others to store about ourselves. It would represent a shifting of the balance of power squarely back to the individual.

You control the action

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If you control your data, it threatens the likes of Google and Facebook, whose business models are in part predicated on keeping your data within their walled gardens.By allowing you to decide who gets what data, it in effect creates a value and marketplace for you to monetise.

An instant use case is that you could sell your anonymous data to market researcher bots that collect relevant information from Enigma clients. These would be ‘smart objects’, talking to each other and transacting data for payment.Real world use cases could be found in just about every industry and sector.

An enigma

This is truly an enigma; it is puzzling and a significant departure from where the Internet and cyber security are today. The promise is incredible, although I would assume that such tectonic shifts are not going to come easily.

Read more: Shining a light on breach disclosure

The large unicorns are not going to allow themselves to be so easily disintermediated. It is really early days, and we have to monitor this closely.

Want to know more? Then register for Enigma’s beta.

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