Cringely Gives KnowNow Some Unbelievable Free Press...

Robert Harley
Sun, 20 Jan 2002 16:14:10 +0100 (CET)

Just got some pretty excellent free press ourselves in the Sunday Tribune,
one of Ireland's major Sunday newspapers.

Full page article below... Cringely mentioned within, Khare and Rifkin too!

Scans with ObMugShot at:

Irishman cracks curves

Dubliner Robert Harley has pioneered an important new method of encryption

 AN Irish researcher working at the cutting edge of cryptography has
invented a crucial new mathematical basis for encryption, the encoding
of computer information. and has established a Paris-based company to
exploit his findings. The new technology could form the basis for a
whole new generation of encryption products to replace the
increasingly compromised mathematical basis of Public Key
Infrastructure (PKI) security.

 Dubliner Robert Harley, 31, made his discovery while working on the
complex elliptical curve cryptography process and established ArgoTech
to provide software and consulting using elliptical cryptography.

In the past 10 years there has been a year-on-year fall in the price
of computers, coupled with exponential growth in those computers'
power.  There has been a corresponding decrease in the safety of
encryption systems because the power has become readily available to
crack systems.

Traditional encryption has, despite the protestations of researchers
and vendors, become less and less safe. While five years ago, 512-bit
encryption was enough to guarantee security, such has been the
progress of breaking that cryptography that 1024-bit encryption is now
the standard form used.

Never has encryption been as important as it is now. Every part of our
lives, from, business to government to banking to our social lives, is
now based at least in part on digital systems which must be secure in
order to function. If encryption fails, the consequences will be
devastating. And traditional cryptography is failing, slowly but
definitely according to Harley.

"Gradually over the past 25 years there has been progress in breaking
RSA systems as better and better algorithms are found," he said.

 The basis of the most common form of (public key infrastructure)
cryptography, is the RSA system developed by RSA Security. At the
heart of the system is a complex mathematical problem involving the
factoring of numbers that keeps data locked by all but the holder of
the solution to that problem (the key).

Elliptical key cryptography, the area of Harley's research, proposes
maintaining the PKI structure but replacing the central mathematical
problem with a new one that is more difficult to solve.

"People have known about elliptical cryptography since the 1970s,"
explained Harley. But while RSA remained unbroken, there was no need
to pursue the elliptical curve method, which had its own problems.

Elliptical curve cryptography uses a mathematical curve instead of a
factoring problem as its core mathematical problem. The trouble is
that it has required a lot of time and computing power to create new
curves with which to encode messages. For the problem to be useful in
commercial cryptography, the curve needs to be generated almost

"Users don't want to wait around for ages for their encryption, and
sometimes they are using very low power devices like mobile phones,"
said Harley.

Then, in 1999, a Japanese academic, Professor Takakazu Satoh, found a
way of producing curves more quickly. "It was very theoretical, so
with a team from the Ecole Polytechnique(in Paris), I took the
algorithm and extended it to practical cases and showed how it could
work in practice."

Then, a year ago, Harley went even further. He invented a whole new
algorithm that further speeded up the creation of secure curves, "With
Professor Jean-François Mestre [of the University of Paris], I
developed a faster algorithm which we called the AGM
(Arithmetic-Geometric Mean) algorithm."

That algorithm now lies at the heart of the company that Harley has
established in Paris. Having cut its teeth in providing consulting and
services, ArgoTech is now moving into the business of providing its
technology to software companies to incorporate into their own

"We did consulting but that becomes frustrating. You do all the work
and you only get paid once. So we are now looking at software deals,"
said Harley. "In any piece of software there is lots of code, but only
a small bit of that is the core code that is the software's
functionality. That's what we can provide."

ArgoTech has a deal with MailWatcher, a data security software firm
that is developing a module that will become a part of the widely used
Lotus Notes platform. Argotech's software will be at the heart of the
MailWatcher software, which in turn will be an option for users of
Lotus Notes. Air France will use the software to encrypt internal
communications among its 400 sites, said Harley.

ArgoTech is also in preliminary discussions with Baltimore
Technologies about licensing the elliptic curve technology for use in
Baltimore's encryption products.

The company was founded October 2000 and has secured seed funding from
Rohit Khare and Adam Rifkin, California-based technology entrepreneurs
who founded the internet data sharing company, KnowNow.

Harley's discovery is rooted in a background in high-level research
into elliptical cryptography. A Dubliner, he studied at Edinburgh
University before conducting graduate research at Paris' Ecole
Polytechnique and the California Institute of Technology. He is
currently completing his PhD at INRIA (Institut National de Recherche
en Informatique et en Automatique).

Harley found fame, in the world of cryptography at least, when he led
a team that won a competition run by Canadian cryptography company
Certicom. The competition was to break elliptical curve cryptography
and Harley's team won after four months of number-crunching on 9500
computers belonging to 1300 volunteers. When Certicom reran the
competition with a more complex version of the problem, Harley won

His exploits did not go unnoticed. IT guru Robert Cringely in his
influential column, The Pulpit, referred to Harley as "an Irish genius
at INRIA" adding that "Harley knows as much about this technology as
anyone in the world".

ArgoTech is in the very early stages of commercialisation on the
technology and the company has only recently changed focus from
consulting to licensing. But the earning potential of the technology
is enormous. If the firm manages to protect its intellectual property,
and if businesses begin to switch from elliptical curve encryption,
ArgoTech could be licensing its technology for use in encryption
software over the world. Harley could well be the man at the centre of
the next wave of cryptography technology.

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