The oldest part of Blockchain

Public key encryption, or PKE, is one of the oldest techniques in the blockchain toolbox. PKE dates from the 1970s and has a lineage of being “discovered” by both military and civilian researchers. It’s powerful stuff: One of the early implementations of a PKE system, called “RSA,” was famously classified as a munition and subject to export control by the United States government.

While PKE (also called “asymmetric key”) is a critical technology in Blockchain systems, I care about it mostly because I get a lot of email. With PKE it is conceptually straightforward to encrypt and “sign” a message in such a way that the identity of the sender is publicly verifiable and that the intended receiver is the only one who can open it. I’ll explain why that matters for my INBOX further on in this post.

Most of the algorithms that underpin PKE make use of pairs of numbers – called “keys” – that are related in a particular way. These “key pairs” are used as input to algorithms to encrypt and decrypt messages. A message that has been encrypted with one of the keys in a pair can only be decrypted using the matching key. As with crytographic hashes, these systems rely on the fact that while it is straightforward to create a pair of keys, it is computationally impractical to guess the second key in a pair given only the first.

This is conceptually distinct from “symmetric” key algorithms, which use the same key for both encryption and decryption.

In one common use of PKE, one half of a key pair is designated as “public,” while the other is “private.” We share the public key widely, posting it on websites and key registries. The private key is closely held. If someone wants to send me a message, they encrypt it using my public key. Since I’m the only one with the private partner to that public key, I’m the only one who can decrypt the message.

Similarly, if the sender wants to “sign” their message, they can encrypt a message using their private key. In this case, only people with access to the public key will be able to decrypt it. This is, of course, not very limiting. Anybody in the world has access to the public key. However, it is still useful, because we know that this particular message was encrypted using the private partner to that public key.

What is particularly cool is that we can “stack” these operations, building them one on top of the other. A very common approach is to encrypt a message twice, first using the sender’s private key to provide verification of their identity, and then a second time using the recipient’s public key, to ensure that only the recipient can open the message.

Many Blockchain systems use this system to verify that the person (or people, or computer program) authorizing a transaction is in fact allowed to do so. In fact, because key pairs are cheap and plentiful, every single Bitcoin transaction has used a unique pair of keys, created just for that one event.

Back to my surplus of email: None of my banks or healthcare providers have deployed this nearly 40 year old capability for communicating with me. Instead, a growing fraction of my inbound email consists of notifications that I have a message waiting on some “secure message center.” I am exhorted to click a link and sometimes required to enter my password in order to see the message.

This practice is actively harmful. Fraudulent links in emails are among the primary vectors by which computers are infected with malware. When we teach the absolute basics of information security, “don’t click the link,” comes right after “don’t share your password,” but before “we will never ask for your password.”

Email systems that use PKE have been around since I’ve been using technology, and somehow my bank and my hospital haven’t caught on. The HIPAA requirement to use “secure messaging,” has driven them backwards, not forwards.

Perhaps if we call it “Blockchain messaging,” it’ll finally catch on.

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