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Miller receives NSF grant to help blockchain engineers build a more secure cyberspace

6/18/2020

Rebecca Gorski, CSL

Andrew Edmund Miller
Andrew Edmund Miller

In late April, just one Bitcoin held a value of well over $7,000 USD. The excitement around cryptocurrencies and other Blockchain-based start-ups is booming around the world, with communities of developers growing rapidly to take advantage of this decentralized, distributed technology. However, while some may have a good grasp of the cryptography techniques needed to ensure the integrity of blockchain applications, not all are equally-equipped. Illinois ECE Assistant Professor Andrew Edmund Miller is working to help solve that problem.

To make sure that Blockchain developers can succeed, the Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace initiative by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Miller a five-year, $500,000 grant for his research, “CAREER: Composable Programming Abstractions for Secure Distributed Computing and Blockchain Applications."

“There is something of a toolbox of cryptography techniques that has been studied thoroughly in academia, and the cryptocurrency and blockchain developers have found these tools to be instrumental in providing their applications with better privacy and better security guarantees,” said Miller. However, for computer science novices and experts alike, these tools are difficult to employ correctly and often require rather unintuitive considerations.

With this grant, Miller intends to provide the kind of tools that cryptocurrency developers are reaching for and want to be able to use, and to package them in a way that is easier to understand or offer tools to support putting these cryptography techniques together in a secure fashion.

Miller, who also serves as an assistant professor in the department of computer science sharing his passions for cryptography, distributed computing, and programming languages, was studying for a PhD in computer graphics when he discovered the societal importance of cryptocurrencies and other blockchain applications.

“The standard cybersecurity observation seems to be that we’re in an increasingly digital society that is mediated by information technology,” shared Miller, “yet none of it was built with security front of mind. When these structures turn out to be vulnerable, therein lies the big problem.”

These vulnerabilities take center stage when giving consideration to the centralization of prominent infrastructure. Strong centralization leaves large numbers of users at the hands of a single entity’s rent-seeking behaviors or potentially adverse incentives (for example, selling off customer data), and leaves the users as sitting ducks should the entity be compromised.

“Blockchain allows engineers to build decentralized systems where there is no lone entity holding users subject to their terms or misaligned incentives, and no single point of failure,” explained Miller, who has been immersed in the world of blockchain since the cryptography and computer security communities first explored the world of digital cash and anonymous currencies. This has allowed him the opportunity to watch different disciplines question and explore the challenges and opportunities that decentralized infrastructure alternatives have to offer.

“Fields such as game theory, economics, and finance are beginning to take a look at what blockchain applications can do for them, and it is only a matter of time before fields such as machine-learning and more catch on,” shared Miller. “I look forward to significantly increasing the capability of blockchain developers to navigate this flexible programming environment.”

More information on the grant, as well as the abstract for Miller’s research can be found at the NSF Award site. Miller is affiliated with the CSL.

 

Read the original article on the CSL site.