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Arvind Narayanan – What Happened to the Crypto Dream?

Thursday, October 11, 2012
12:30 pm


Sherrerd Hall, 3rd floor open space
Princeton, NJ 08544 United States + Google Map

Live video stream:
Food and discussion begins at 12:30 pm. Everyone invited.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, cryptography was envisioned by many pioneers and hobbyists as a tool not just for mundane uses like securing e-commerce transactions, but as a defense against the coming age of surveillance, and indeed as a weapon of freedom that would upset the balance of power between people and governments/corporations, ushering in a new era of unprecedented personal privacy and autonomy.

In retrospect, crypto appears to have done surprisingly little for privacy. In addition to the grand crypto-anarchist vision, there is also a long and ongoing line of academic work on privacy-preserving versions of different types of computations, promising more modest privacy enhancements in various specific domains. In my opinion, these have also seen less real-world deployment than anticipated.

This phenomenon deserves examination, elucidation and explanation, which I will aim to do in this talk. Rejecting the notion that the holdup is due to computational inefficiency, I will present several economic, cognitive and sociotechnical reasons why the cryptographic approach to privacy is fraught with difficulties. While these problems appear fundamental, I will discuss possible ways to make some progress.


Arvind Narayanan (Ph.D. 2009) is an Assistant Professor in Computer Science and CITP at Princeton. He studies information privacy and security and has a side-interest in tech policy. His research has shown that data anonymization is broken in fundamental ways, for which he jointly received the 2008 Privacy Enhancing Technologies Award. He is one of the researchers behind the “Do Not Track” proposal. You can follow Narayanan on Twitter at @random_walker and on Google+ here.