Monday, April 17, 2006

Publication Economics and Cryptography Research

Something I cannot cease to wonder is why historically there has been so little published research on the cryptanalysis of block ciphers. There seem to be millions of articles describing "turning some math guy's favourite mathematical problem into an asymetric crypto algorithm" and a similar flood of "fair coin flipping if all participants are drunk cats and the coin is a ball of yarn"-sort of papers. All in all, there have been perhabs less than 20 REALLY important papers in the analysis of symetric crypto in ... uhm ... the last 10 years (I count hashes as symetric crypto here).

What's the reason for this ?

First of all, symetric crypto tends to not have a "nice" mathematical structure. This changed somewhat with AES, but almost everything on the symetric side is rather ugly to look at. Sure, everything can be written as large multivariate polynomials over GF(2), but that's just a prettier way of writing a large boolean formulae. So it's hard for anybody in a math department to justify working on something that is "like a ring, but not quite, or like a group, but not quite".

Secondly, starting to build a protocol or proposing a new asymetric cipher is something that a sane researcher (that has not earned tenure yet) can do in a "short" window of time. Setting out to break a significant crypto algorithm could very easily lead to "10+ years in the wilderness and a botched academic career due to a lack of publications". The result: If you haven't earned tenure yet, and want to work in crypto, you work on the constructive side.

I find this to be a bit frustrating. I'd like to work on ciphers, specifically on BREAKING ciphers. I seriously could never get myself excited about defense. I wouldn't mind spending a few years of my life on one cipher. But academically, and career wise, this is clear suicide.

Perhabs we should value "destructive" research more. From my personal viewpoint, a break in a significant cipher is worth more than 20 papers on fair coin flipping in the absence of gravity. But when it comes to giving out tenure, it almost seems that the 20 papers outweigh the one.

Ahwell. Enough ranting, back to work.

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