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One of cryptography’s 'all time greats' is Mr Adir Shamir. He was the ‘S’ in RSA, the grand-daddy of one of the most widely used formats for public key cryptography. As if one great discovery in a lifetime is not enough, has threatened to up-end the security he gave the world. He has announced a design for a computer system, called a Twinkle, which could revolutionise (again ?!) modern computing.

Modern cryptography gains its strength on the fact that whilst it is easy to multiply two prime numbers together, it is not at all easy to reverse the process: to discover which two prime numbers (factors) had been multiplied together to achieve that result. For very long numbers, it is presently impossible. It is one of those great questions. Almost every mathematician of note has tried, but nobody has found a way of discovering these factors other than by brute force calculation. If the numbers are big enough, the most massive brute force computing effort is ineffective.

Until the twinkle – almost.

Shamir has described (not implemented) a new kind of computer which, might increase computer calculation speeds by a factor, perhaps. of 20,000. He has produced, or described how to produce, something capable of rather greater brute force than has previously been thought possible. The computer depends upon the use of light reflections, hence the name Twinkle.

Since this might not immediately challenge properly strong encryption (reducing a cracking time of two million years to two thousand years), it may have particular significance for much commercial software. Consumer and business software exported from the USA used to have its encryption protection much reduced. In a world where there are only guesses: a Lotus Notes database encrypted in the US might take ‘forever’ to crack, but one encrypted on export version software might take two hours. Divide forever by twenty thousand, and one gets forever. Divide two hours similarly, and the result would be a mere twinkling of an eye.

This does have real implications for those concerned with encryption policy. and the commercial implementation of it. Is e-commerce safe?

It would be nice to think that Mr Shamir is an individual of exceptional talent, and I am sure he is. How far behind him (or indeed ahead) are those secretive bodies concerned to intercept our every communication? We have no way of knowing, but it seems that the writing is clearly (acknowledging the context), on the wall for those commercial software systems exported from the US with crippled encryption. These include all the big names of Microsoft IE, Lotus Notes and Netscape. They have in the past been described as having 128 bit encryption, but in practice a substantial part of that security has been compromised and crippled.

It is right to say that this is changing. Recent relaxations in US Export control legislation may mean that future exports of such software will be of 'full strength' encryption. Perhaps by then also, the twinkle will be no longer a mere twinkle.

For those more interested, papers on Twinkle are available from


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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 21 18 October 2013