CipherMode Labs CEO and co-founder Sadegh Riazi has worked with encryption throughout his career. He studied it as part of his doctorate. He was part of the Microsoft SEAL team that worked on improving and making homomorphic encryption more efficient.
What he found was that while homomorphic encryption allows you to work with encrypted data, it does so at an extremely high resource cost, which is so high that it is bad for the environment. He spent much of the early part of his career making it more efficient, but he found that even with modified chips, he and his fellow researchers could only move the needle that far.
Then he decided to turn in a different direction and take an encrypted road that was less traveled. He teamed up with Ilya Razenshteyn, who had studied encryption at MIT, and they started looking at a method that hadn’t been taken very seriously in the encryption community before.
“So first of all, it’s very different from homomorphic encryption. It is based on a completely different paradigm in cryptography. It’s not a better version of it. It’s not a variant of it. I’ve worked on both. So our field is called Secure Multiparty Computation,” Riazi said.
He said that when he started studying SMPC, he saw an area that was largely untapped and perhaps with more possibilities for secure encryption without the computational overhead inherent in homomorphic encryption.
“We have our own challenges, but to put it very simply, it is a fertile ground for innovation. We have more room for improvement. We have more dimensions for improvement. And that’s why we’re working on it,” he says.
To be clear, there was a lot of skepticism in the community about whether this particular technology could be used to protect encrypted data at scale. “At the beginning of my PhD, when I went to security conferences and I said I was working on this topic, Secure Multiparty Computation, people were like ‘oh, that’s a cute cryptographic toy, but it will never be used. [widely],'” he said.
But he and Razenshteyn saw the potential and they went against conventional thinking and started building a set of tools to put SMPC to work. They created an open source library called CipherCore which they are launching today. With this new tool, researchers can protect data without cryptographic expertise by simply referencing the data source by writing some code. CipherMode takes care of the encryption at the back by building the right protocol to protect the data.
“We essentially decouple the application layer from the protocol layer, allowing users to write very simple programs. And then we’ll be able to create the corresponding protocol that they need to run and handle encrypted data,” he said.
The solution offers similar benefits to homomorphic encryption without the same overhead and offers 2-3 orders of magnitude improvement over the state-of-the-art homomorphic solutions. It also offers fast compute times and demonstrable security, but in a way the company says is easy to implement and even secure against quantum computers.
The startup is working on a commercial version that is expected to be ready later this year.
In addition to launching its open source library today, the startup also announced that it has completed a $6.7 million seed investment led by Innovation Endeavors with participation from Pillar VC, the National Science Foundation and several leading companies from the industry.