Henry earns two NSF grants to study cryptographic techniques for internet privacy

Ryan Henry
Ryan Henry


Ryan Henry, an assistant professor at the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, has been awarded a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation to study cryptographic techniques for protecting the privacy of internet users.

Henry’s research at SICE has focused on the systems challenges of applied cryptography, and the grants will explore different methods.

“The techniques that I am exploring through these grants are intimately related to those I envision proposed for my eventual CAREER proposal,” Henry said. “Both grants are allowing me to fund PhD students, who are both helping me to conduct this research and who are being trained as leaders in these areas. The blockchain grant includes funds to purchase and maintain the hardware needed to roll out our envisioned PIR-based system for querying the Bitcoin blockchain privately.”

One grant focuses on primitive information retrieval (PIR), which is a method that solves the seemingly impossible issue of allowing users to retrieve records from untrusted sources and remote database servers without allowing those outlets to know which records are being retrieved. PIR has long been studied, but the prohibitive computing cost of the method has made it inefficient. Henry is the principal investigator of the project that couples a strong theoretical component with an ambitious practical application centered on developing, analyzing, and implementing a novel “batch” information-theoretic-PIR technique that will alleviate some of the cost.

Henry’s research aims to develop a framework to better understand the mathematics underlying batch IT-PIR, use insights gained from those frameworks to improve upon the known constructions, and to use the improved constructions to implement practical, privacy-respecting alternatives to a selection of existing privacy-agnostic products and services.

Henry also is part of an international collaboration with Professor Amir Herzberg at Bar Ilan University in Israel and Professor Aniket Kate at Purdue University that has been awarded a joint grant from the NSF and the Us-Israel Binational Science Foundation. The project, “Making Blockchains Scale Privately and Reliably,” addresses privacy concerns as they relate both to traditional blockchain transactions and to newer “payment channel network” transactions. The latter offers greatly improved scalability by allowing secure payment requiring no interaction with the blockchain ledger.

Blockchains were developed to digitally and anonymously send payments between two parties without the use of a third party to verify the transaction. It was initially used for transactions involving cryptocurrencies, but its use has expanded to banking and the Internet of Things, and it could change how health records are handled and how medical devices store and transmit data.

“The scope of the first proposal spans the spectrum from purely theoretical through to imminently practical,” Henry said. “Private information retrieval (PIR) has been extensively studied by theoreticians for over 20 years but has received relatively little attention from practitioners and applied researchers. I am interested both in the theory and the practice of PIR, and the goal of this proposal is to help bridge that gap to develop efficient and easy-to-safely-use PIR techniques.

“The second proposal is much more focused on immediate applications. Cryptocurrencies are on the rise, and a whole slew of blockchain-based technologies are being proposed and tested out by industry. As part of the proposed research, we will implement and deploy some of the new techniques so that actual Bitcoin users can benefit from the privacy offered by our techniques in the wild. We also hope that our techniques will be adopted by industry, thus enabling blockchain-based technologies to be more widely deployed to improve efficiency, auditability, etc. without harming the privacy of the users nor threatening the security/competitiveness of the institutions, that interact with those blockchains.”

Both grants are through the Secure & Trustworthy Cyberspace program at the NSF.

“Henry’s work is a perfect example of the how research in SICE merges theory with practice,” said Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at SICE. “These grants will pave the way for taking theoretically possible approaches to secure, private internet transactions and transforming them into practical implementations that people can rely on every day.”

For more information on research at SICE, visit our website.

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