On Thursday, December 5, AMS President Jill Pipher spoke to Congressional representatives and told her attentive audience about the long history—from Caesar to present—of cybersecurity; the deep theoretical mathematics involved, and the state-of-play regarding both the potential and perils of quantum computing.
After a quick tour of the older history, Pipher turned to describing her own work. In the 1990s, Pipher and her colleagues Jeffrey Hoffstein and Joseph Silverman developed the NTRUEncrypt cryptosystem. NTRUEncrypt is similar in philosophy to other cryptosystems—more familiar to many of us—that rely on factoring large numbers in that it involves a very difficult task of undoing something (factoring) that is very easy to do (multiplying). This system is based on lattices. In the lattice context, the difficult task is related to the shortest and closest vector problems. Ok, I am going to stop here—if you want to know more about the mathematics there are way better resources than I.
Lattice-based systems appear to be resistant to quantum computer attacks. The government is very concerned about threats to our security in the age of quantum computing. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is in the process of selecting one or more public-key cryptographic algorithms through a public competition-like process. It is intended that these algorithms will be capable of protecting sensitive information well into the foreseeable future, including after the advent of quantum computers. Earlier this year NIST announced the 26 algorithms that have been submitted and will advance to the Post-Quantum Crypto Semifinals. Lattice-based algorithms are represented well in this group of 26, and are considered by many to be lead contenders for effective post-quantum security. NIST also leads a partnership between government, academia, and the private sector focused on cybersecurity education, training, and workforce development.
This briefing was attended by four members of Congress—Rhode Island Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Representatives Langevin (RI 2) and McNerney (CA 9). All four gave remarks, and Senator Reed introduced Pipher. I was really pleased that the Rhode Island delegation showed in force, and that they acknowledged that the AMS headquarters is in Providence. Representative Langevin, especially, discussed cryptography in technical detail; this topic is one of his top legislative priorities and he is one of Congress’s leaders developing legislation aimed at protecting the nation from cyber-attacks.
All four shared their passion for science, the importance of evidence-based approaches to their work in Congress, and for the critical importance and timeliness of this particular topic. Senator Reed called for a federal effort, on the scale of the Manhattan Project, around quantum computing. They also recognized that the basic mathematics research is often funded by the NSF, and that continuing robust federal funding of the NSF is critical for advancements in our field.
Who else was there? In no particular order:
- many staff from congressional offices—representing individual members of Congress and congressional committees;
- a group of students and faculty doing Hill visits with the Association for Women in Mathematics, including current President Ruth Haas;
- several NSF staff members, including National Science Board Chair Diane Souvaine;
- staff from the National Academies of Science;
- Brown’s Research Communications Manager Noel Rubinton who wrote a piece about the briefing.
I organize and host these briefings together with David Eisenbud, the Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). David and I have great staff support for these. The first step, which we usually begin 6-12 months ahead of time is to find a speaker. We look for dynamic speakers who will talk about a topic of current congressional interest. After a speaker and a few dates are selected, we approach the office of a member of Congress who we ask to help with logistics for the day (this is necessary because only members of Congress can reserve rooms in the Senate and House and Capitol buildings).
The goals of the briefings are to show Congressional members and their staff that
- mathematics is everywhere;
- federally funding theoretical mathematics (especially by the NSF) leads to scientific advances that help secure our nation (via, for example, the work discussed at this briefing and also one we held in 2017 with speaker Shafi Goldwasser), and improve our health (via, for example, the advances in MRI technology discussed by David Donoho at our 2017 briefing); and that
- the AMS is a credible resource.
A list of previous briefings is found on the AMS and also on the MSRI websites.
Pipher is the President of the AMS and Vice President for Research at Brown University and Elisha Benjamin Andrews Professor of Mathematics. She was the founding director of the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM), a National Science Foundation mathematics institute.