Technology adopters have become accustomed to picking a preferred device or software and then investing heavily in the supporting brand ecosystem. However, for blockchain advocates like Stanford Professor of Computer and Electrical Engineering Dan Boneh, blockchain is a refreshing change as it remains accessible to the community as an open source technology.
But even in a sector where he says “nothing is proprietary” there is a need for privacy. Much of Professor Boneh’s work with Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI) has touched on new applications that ensure transactions can be private while the blockchain remains open, trustworthy, and auditable.
Blockchain as an output for cryptography in the application
As head of the Applied Cryptography Group at Stanford University and co-director of the Computer Security Lab, Professor Boneh’s research focuses on applications of cryptography for computer security. As the author of more than a hundred publications in the field and a member of Packard and Alfred P. Sloan, he has received numerous awards throughout his career.
He quickly makes it clear that cryptography is centuries before blockchain. However, during its early career in the field, cryptography lacked a way to effectively use its advanced techniques in mainstream applications. He’s in love with the large audience that is now interested in blockchain and his appetite for using advanced cryptographic techniques for application to real world problems.
One of the early blockchain challenges that fascinated Professor Boneh was how a cryptographic exchange could prove solvency or that it contained more assets than liabilities. The hurdle is the ability to prove it without revealing the assets of the world. The solution was to use knowledge-free evidence.
Similarly, he was intrigued by the ability to reduce the amount of data on the blockchain without compromising its ability to verify its accuracy. This was challenging as every transaction had to be signed and stored on the blockchain so that the open source community could verify that it was correct. Ultimately, he helped develop a way to compress all of the signatures to avoid storing millions of them individually, while ensuring verifiability.
Empowering students through research
The field of crypto and blockchain technology has advanced rapidly and significantly since Professor Boneh’s early projects. He attributes part of this to more sophisticated infrastructure and tools for developers. When he started teaching the development environment was rudimentary, but now it has evolved into smart contracts and decentralized applications.
Through his courses and research – and in collaboration with UBRI – he aims to show an emerging generation of technologists and entrepreneurs how to use these new tools to ensure that the crypto blockchain continues to help solve real-world problems.
In fact, the goal of his core Computer Science for Blockchain course, which he has taught since 2015 and which can attract more than 100 students per session, is for students to design and build their own applications by the end of the course.
Many well-known solutions have emerged from both this course and Professor Boneh’s research group, including systems such as Bulletproofs and, more recently, Supersonic. These are new approaches to short knowledge-free evidence, so-called SNARKs, that enable private transactions on a public blockchain.
SNARKs play a valuable role in blockchain-based business relationships as they encrypt transaction data but ensure that the chain remains verifiable and intact. With a SNARK, anyone can verify that the data is correct, but they cannot display the data in the ciphertext.
Supersonic is a highly efficient SNARK that doesn’t require a trustworthy setup. This is a limitation in previous versions.
Another group of students in his group identified a security flaw in popular private blockchain payment systems that allows people to make payments on the blockchain without revealing the transaction partners or transaction amounts. Professor Boneh’s group helped identify a vulnerability and find a solution to it that enabled the use of side channels to de-anonymize these transactions.
Expansion of the blockchain competence with UBRI
These are all good examples of what Professor Boneh calls a collaborative community in the world of blockchain. He hopes to build on these and others to ultimately address future governance of blockchain projects.
To achieve this goal, he will continue to use UBRI to improve literacy in relation to blockchain. In academia and through his research, he hopes to drive the public and media beyond “flat price discussions” to understand that the power of blockchain lies in the new applications it enables.
UBRI is a major funder of its research and courses, including blockchain events like The Stanford Blockchain Conferencewhich takes place over three days and attracts more than 800 participants.
Professor Boneh also uses UBRI to fund PhD theses such as that of PhD student Riad Wahby. Wahby is working on digital signatures for blockchains and optimizing rollup, a scaling technique that all blockchains would benefit from.
Looking ahead, Professor Boneh is pleased with the development of the Ripple partnership and looks forward to continuing their important work.
To learn more about UBRI, please visit our UBRI website and look for monthly Insights posts in the On Campus series.
Editor’s Note: Professor Boneh’s Stanford courses are available online through Coursera. For his free cryptography textbook for the blockchain community, please visit Cryptobook.us.