Over the last few months, renowned global organizations and financial establishments have proposed designs, or at least have attempted to implement Bitcoin’s blockchain technology, to encrypt sensitive data or to settle transactions without the association of third-party institutions such as banks.
Continuing the global trend, the MIT Media Lab and two Bitcoin entrepreneurs have developed a prototype of an encryption system called Enigma. Enigma is a Bitcoin blockchain-based encryption system that enables untrusted and anonymous computers to share sensitive information with a third party without putting the data at risk of hacking attacks and breaches.
The system will be able to prevent shared information from being surveilled by government entities or law enforcement, as it can only be decrypted by the holder of the decryption keys.
“You can see it as a black box,” explained Guy Zyskind, one of the developers of Enigma and an MIT Media Lab graduate researcher. “You send whatever data you want, and it runs in the black box and only returns the result. The actual data is never revealed, neither to the outside nor to the computers running the computations inside.”
In a way, Enigma’s techniques and properties resemble a few features of Bitcoin’s decentralized network infrastructure. Enigma encrypts data by disassociating it into several components, and by randomly segregating it to hundreds of computers in the Enigma network, also known as nodes. Then, each node runs calculations on its assigned block of data, until a user merges the results to decrypt a block.
The mathematical algorithms are designed by the developers of Enigma, and the nodes execute calculations only on the blocks of data that it is assigned to.
The ownership of data, or chunks of information, is then stored as metadata in the Bitcoin blockchain, which prevents the ledger of ownership from being forged or altered.
“I can take my age, this one piece of data, and split it into pieces, and give it to 10 people,” says Zyskind. “If you ask each one of those persons, they have only a random chunk. Only by combining enough of those pieces can they decrypt the original data.”
What Enigma’s Encryption System Can Bring
If Enigma’s encryption system works out flawlessly like the developers promise, it would create a whole different ecosystem where private databases can be hosted without threats from third-party entities, such as governments or law enforcement trying to surveil the information.
While cloud databases and platforms such as Dropbox and even Facebook are obligated or often forced to pass on sensitive data at governments’ will, the same cannot be done for Enigma’s cloud services, because the data simply cannot be revealed without the decryption keys which only its owners hold and control.
Enigma would also allow users to safely share all kinds of information with companies without any risks of releasing sensitive data. “No one wants to give their data to some company when you don’t know what they‘ll do with it,” explained Oz Nathan, Enigma’s co-creator. “But if you have guaranteed privacy, data analysis can be a lot more powerful. People will actually be willing to share more.”
Joseph is a web developer and designer, writer and a passionate musician who loves to travel. He has worked as a researcher for a number of venture capital firms and as a freelancer designer for resorts and corporations in Korea and the Philippines.