Blockchain Privacy is Target Of Carnegie Mellon Crypto Group

Blockchain, Education, FinTech | December 14, 2017 By:

Vipul Goyal is an expert in cryptography and an Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon, where he is part of the CMU Crypto Group. Previously, he was a researcher in the Cryptography and Complexity group at Microsoft Research, India, where he won a 2016 ACM CCS test of time award, a Microsoft Research graduate fellowship, and a Google outstanding graduate student award.

He talked with Block Tribune about his perspectives on cryptocurrency developments in the last half of this year.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Bitcoin’s price is booming. What’s your reaction?

VIPUL GOYAL:  I think it’s in a bubble right now, but I thought so even when it was at 1000, so I don’t trust my opinions anymore..

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  You feel that we’re going to have a crash soon?  

VIPUL GOYAL:  Yeah. I think the market cap is more than $100 billion, now?  I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that. It’s like the market cap is more than the economy of several countries. But again, as I said, even in past when it was like a few thousand dollars, I thought it was still in a bubble, and obviously I was wrong. I’m not very good at predicting the prices.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Okay. Fair enough. Bitcoin is still somewhat obscure. That the mainstream doesn’t really recognize it, yet you’re teaching courses in it where, obviously students are coming in and they want to be a part of this industry. Do you think of bitcoin more as a store of value or do you see it becoming a transaction vehicle at some point?

VIPUL GOYAL:  I think more than just the transactions. I think the most useful feature of bitcoin, and blockchains in general, is the smart contract thing. The transaction is just an added feature. That’s how it started as a cryptocurrency, but I see it changing society in very profound ways into the future. Not because of the currency aspect of it, but rather, the additional decentralized functionality it provides.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: Tell me how you see it changing society? What changes will be wrought by this?

VIPUL GOYAL:  The smart contract feature can be very useful for the companies. It’s a contract, which is enforced by cryptography other than by a code of law or a judge or lawyers. That’s something, which is obviously very useful and could save the company significant amounts on their legal costs. In fact the decisions are all so much faster, instantaneous in smart contracts. Also, I find that smart assets part of blackchains very appealing. People are talking about, for example, putting up the ownership of their home or the car on blockchains. I was working for Microsoft before joining CMU. The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, he was very excited about the idea that all the properties of our should be put up on blockchains because we have so many civil disputes over properties in the US, but even more so in developing societies like India.If the ownership of all the properties, all the records of are transferred over to blockchain, then a lot of these disputes could be avoided.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  The only problem is, I think it’s one thing to get a judgment. It’s Another to actually collect. So there’s still that hurdle.

VIPUL GOYAL:  Well, the smart contract could automatically transfer money from one party to another.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: Okay. Tell me a little bit about the CMU Crypto Group. What does it embrace? Is it just a title to does it actually have a philosophy and a way of being?

VIPUL GOYAL:  This group has recently started on when I joined. Before me, CMU had Manuel Blum, who is a very famous cryptographer. He has a Turing Award, the equivalent of Nobel prize in computer science. But Manuel was the only person working in crypto for a while. Then I joined earlier this year. We now have a group to speak of. We plan to investigate several aspects of cryptography but the most important thing for us is doing fundamental work. We are not out there to build more applications, for example, for blockchains, and so on. We are not developers but we want to look into fundamental aspects of cryptography. In the context of blockchains, I am actively looking into how the capability of blockchains can be further expanded and we could use them for more and more applications.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: Okay. What do you foresee? Can you give me an example of what you maybe trying to do?

VIPUL GOYAL:  I am working on a project which is called blockchains in private competition right now. One of the recognized problems with blockchains, all the data that you put on the blockchain is public. It is available for anybody to see with an Internet connection. A lot of individuals, a lot of companies, they are just not that comfortable with this concept. For example, you could use a smart contract, but the code of the smart contract as such is available for everybody to see. I am trying to develop a version of blockchain where the data, which you put on the blockchain could be private, but still you could do useful things over it. For example, it would allow you to have private smart contracts, where the code of the smart contract or the text of the smart contract is only available to the participating parties and nobody else. That’s one example.

Another example, another application that I have in mind is just building secure storage systems out of blockchains. Secure storage is a big deal in the security community these days. Every day we hear about some hacks, like Equifax or HBO end episodes of Game of Thrones seasons were leaked.

One of the financial reasons why this is so common, there is a very clear target for the attackers. Here’s a server. The server may be managed very well but if you can find some vulnerability in the server, then I can just get in and download all the data.

So blockchains, they have a very infrastructure in this context.They are like thousands of different miners, all located in different geographic locations, different countries, running, potentially different operating systems, and so on. So if we could design a system where baking into the system and downloading the data, would require baking into many different computers over the network. Then it would provide much better security than current systems.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: You just mentioned hacking. Recently there was a major hack on a Parity Technologies blockchain, and it flows somewhere on the order of $150 million, maybe even more. What does that tell you about the systems themselves? Clearly Parity made a mistake, but I meant overall does that give you any pause about the overall hackability of blockchains in general?

VIPUL GOYAL:  So I understand that this was because of a bug in their code. I think that we’ll see that more and more going forward. As the systems get more complex, writing, bug-free software is next to impossible.

Normally, there’s some regulative authority or somebody like that. If there’s a break then the authority can step in and potentially fix something but here we don’t have that luxury. If there’s a bug, if there’s a exploit, then whatever is gone, is gone. I see that as a big problem going forward and I think these hard folks, which I guess, nobody likes, is the only solution in sight, right now.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: Won’t that be a barrier to growth? Won’t trust be eroded if these keep happening and we have to keep tinkering under the hood, so to speak? It’s like the bank that keeps getting robbed.

VIPUL GOYAL:  Yeah. I think you’re right. It’s a good analogy. Actually there’s a lot of research happening right now. Where, for example, the code that you write before being deployed, there’ll be several techniques, which would verify the code automatically. Hopefully, the tools to write these programs and tools to ensure the programs don’t have any vulnerability, will improve into the future. But, nothing is perfect. Definitely we’ll see more of these things going forward.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Do you have an opinion on Initial Coin Offerings?

VIPUL GOYAL:  I don’t follow that specifically, as such. I’m not an investor in either bitcoin or any of the cryptocurrencies.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  What do you see going forward over the next year happening, say in the next six to eight months? Can you make any predictions for us?

VIPUL GOYAL:  There’ll be a lot more and I predict that there will be at least some, where the investors will lose money. Investors will invest a lot of money and then they will realize that it’s kind of a scam. Then they will ask the government or the authorities to step in and it’s not very clear what the policy regarding this is. The next one year, I see a lot of action happening with the policy front for these initial coin offerings.

BLOCK TRIBUNE: Anything specific?

VIPUL GOYAL:  I think the authority will really have to clarify what is being regulated and if somebody offers a coin, and later on the coin becomes worthless, then what happens? Do you really go after that company who made the money doing it?