What is Homomorphic Encryption, and Why Should I Care?

Posted by on in Blogs
The March 2010 issue of the Communications of the ACM includes a technical paper with an introduction entitled "A First Glance of Cryptography's Holy Grail" (ACM subscription required). That's enough to catch my attention. The paper itself, Computing Arbitrary Functions of Encrypted Data, describes a relatively new algorithm for homomorphic encryption.

Although these words may be unfamiliar to many, the subject matter is terribly important, because, like public-key encryption, which paved the way for secure transactions over the web, an efficient and fully homomorphic encryption scheme would enable new kinds of distributed computing. I'll explain more about this in a little bit.

If you have an ACM membership, or can find the magazine in a library, I recommend the article. It is far and away more readable than the technical papers on the same subject which are available on the web. The article uses a running analogy of a jeweler who doesn't quite trust her employees in order to help the reader understand the design of the system.

What Is Homomorphic Encryption?

"Homomorphic" is an adjective which describes a property of an encryption scheme. That property, in simple terms, is the ability to perform computations on the ciphertext without decrypting it first. Because this tends to sound either baffling or miraculous the first time you hear it, let's begin with a very simple example.

The popular but wildly insecure cipher scheme rot-13 (a.k.a. "Caesar cipher") is partially homomorphic, specifically with respect to the concatenation operation. Imagine we write an Encrypt and Decrypt function using the rot-13 algorithm. The "secret key" will be 13, the number of characters each letter is shifted. Let's encrypt two words and then concatenate the ciphertext, and finally decrypt the result. In psuedocode, this is:

var c1 = Encrypt(13, "HELLO");      // c1 = URYYB
var c2 = Encrypt(13, "WORLD"); // c2 = JBEYQ
var c3 = Concat (c1, c2); // c3 = URYYBJBEYQ
var p = Decrypt(13, c3); // p = HELLOWORLD

Because it was not necessary to first decrypt the two fragments of ciphertext before performing the concatenation operation, we can say that rot-13 is homomorphic with respect to concatenation.  In other words, it is possible to take two pieces of ciphertext and perform an operation on them which results in the ciphertext of the concatenation of the two respective pieces of plaintext.

Visually, it looks like this:

Homomorphic concat with Rot-13

It just so happens that in this case the homomorphic concatenation (concatenating the two fragments of ciphertext) is the same operation as the non-homomorphic concatenation (concatenating two fragments of plaintext). This is not always the case. What is important is that we can perform some operation on the input ciphertext which will produce new ciphertext that, when decrypted, will produce output plaintext corresponding to a desired operation on the input plaintext.

Although rot-13 is not at all secure, it turns out that some cryptosystems widely believed to be secure have homomorphic properties. For example, "pure" and un-padded RSA is homomorphic with respect to multiplication.

Why Should I Care?

All of this may seem academically interesting, but one might wonder why I started this post claiming that "an efficient and fully homomorphic encryption scheme would enable new kinds of distributed computing."

I think that the scenario which best makes the benefits of homomorphic encryption clear is cloud computing. It is often much more economical to buy computing resources from a cloud provider than to build a data center yourself. This is especially true if your need for computing horsepower fluctuates. But what if you want to do this computing on private data? Maybe you trust your cloud provider, but what if trust is not enough? Is there a way to get the compelling economic benefits of cloud computing while keeping your data secure?

Imagine that you have developed a web application for income tax preparation. Your application collects personal and financial information from the user, creates a tax strategy resulting in the lowest possible (legal!) income tax payment, and submits the prepared return to the IRS. From a business point of view, this application might be compelling, but it's a daunting task operationally. In the United States, most people file their taxes once a year, before April 15th. This means that your servers will see a huge spike in demand in the first quarter of the year, with relatively little demand other times. Also, potential customers might be understandably wary about uploading their personal information and financial data to the website of a new business.

Cloud computing offers an excellent answer to the first problem. Because you buy computing resources on as-needed basis, it is very easy to increase the number of available servers when tax season arrives, and reduce the number at other times. Unfortunately, it doesn't do anything for the second problem.

Hard security in the cloud is not really possible today. It's very easy to have secure transmission from a local machine to a cloud data store, and of course the stored data can be encrypted. But actually performing computations on that data in the cloud requires decrypting it first. Anyone with physical access to the machine, therefore, has access to your data.

What if it were possible for a user of your tax preparation software to upload their financial information encrypted under the IRS's public key? Then their data would be secure. You can do this today, of course, but your software would be unable to select a tax strategy for the user or prepare forms. If, however, the encryption method used was also fully homomorphic, then your software could do all of this work without first decrypting the user's information. The output of your software would be a tax return encrypted under the IRS's public key. Only the IRS could decrypt it.

Fully Homomorphic Encryption

So a fully homomorphic encryption scheme would seem to solve the security problem while still being compatible with a cloud deployment scenario. Unfortunately, preparing a tax return requires more than just a Concat operation. We can say that an encryption scheme is "fully homomorphic" if it supports enough homomorphic operations to implement any function we need. I'm being purposely imprecise here, because the details are a bit of a digression at this point.

Although there are a number of encryption schemes with one homomorphic operation, until recently no one was really sure if fully homomorphic encryption was even possible. Rivest, Adleman, and Dertouzos suggested that fully homomorphic encryption may be possible in 1978, but were unable to find a secure scheme. Another scheme, from Boneh, et. al., supports two operations, but you can only perform one of them once.

When you consider the complexity of a typical programming language, two operations doesn't sound like very many, but since we are only looking at operations which mutate data (as opposed to keeping track of the current instruction pointer, etc.) it turns out that supporting the and and xor operations is enough to consider a scheme fully homomorphic, if you can perform those operations an unlimited number of times.

So it was big news when Craig Gentry managed to create such a scheme as part of his Stanford doctoral thesis. Gentry, along with several other researchers from IBM and MIT later created yet another scheme using a different encryption technique, but a similar general approach, with similar homomorphic properties.

Some would say "too big." Bruce Schneier criticized the IBM press release for implying, in his reading, that Gentry's scheme was practical for real applications, today. It isn't; the computational and data storage overheads are far too high. However, this takes nothing away from Gentry's achievement; he has shown that fully homomorphic encryption is actually possible. Indeed, Schneier concludes:
Visions of a fully homomorphic cryptosystem have been dancing in cryptographers' heads for thirty years. I never expected to see one. It will be years before a sufficient number of cryptographers examine the algorithm that we can have any confidence that the scheme is secure, but -- practicality be damned -- this is an amazing piece of work.

Let's Code It!

The second, fully homomorphic scheme proposed by Gentry, et al., and described in the CACM article is simple enough that I decided to implement it myself. I've learned quite a lot in the process of doing this. So in the near future I'll be sharing my code and some of the insights I've made in this process.

Before I can do that, however, I need to describe some of the math involved. And I'd like to elaborate on why two operations is enough to consider a scheme "fully homomorphic."

(Continue reading...)


  • Guest
    draytek help » SA Thursday, 18 March 2010

    [...] Craig Stuntz's Weblog : What is Homomorphic Encryption, and Why … [...]

  • Guest

    [...] 21st, 2010 Craig Stuntz’s Weblog : What is Homomorphic Encryption, and Why Should I Care? Interesting! (tags: code homomorphic security [...]

  • Guest
    Robert Street Monday, 22 March 2010

    Nice article. A friend pointed me to it. I actually missed reading this past months CACM and now I am eager to read it and the papers. I would like to point out that there is only one operation which needs to be proven homomorphic in the encryption scheme for all others to be: NAND. Since XOR and AND can both be derived from multiple NANDs, proving that the system is homomorphic over an unlimited number of NAND operations should prove it is homomorphic over an unlimited number of all binary operations.

  • Guest
    Marian Iskander Wednesday, 7 April 2010

    Imagine the benefits that we can get if such fully homomorphic systems trully exist while being practically efficient to implement and use. Imagine how this boost the cloud computing in the market since now more companies can rely on outsourcing their data, doing all different types of data aggregation and computations on the encrypted data, without having to worry about their privacy !! Amazing.. As if you can have your own crypto processor running under your fingertip.. I wish Bruce Schneier can talk more about the security aspects of this new and leave the practicallity issues to be resolved later.

  • Guest
    Raphael L. Castro Wednesday, 5 May 2010

    I'd like to say thank you for this nice article and I'd like to know, if there is any problems with the link "Continue reading.." or is just my mystake that I can't get in there?

    Response: Sorry; the link was broken. I fixed it. Thanks for mentioning it!

  • Guest

    [...] perform matching, compromising the privacy protections. An interesting topic at this conference was homomorphic encryption, a method that allows biometric matching to be done while the data is encrypted. For example, if a [...]

  • Guest
    Nirali Wednesday, 23 March 2011

    HI Craig,

    This is indeed a very nice article . I am doing research on Gentry's scheme and the Math Primer you have posted might be really helpful too since the protocol is a lil complicated to understand.

  • Guest

    [...] decrypted locally to reveal the final answer of 5. On his blog site, Craig Stuntz offers another layman’s explanation of homomorphic encryption, allowing me to better grasp the concept. He included the following [...]

  • Guest

    [...] as ‘cryptography’s holy grail’, Homomorphic Encryption/Computation is a form of encryption where specific algebraic operations on [...]

  • Guest
    Cuneyt Sina Koca Thursday, 2 February 2012

    Hi Craig,
    Thanks for the article, I gained a lot from it.
    At the end of the article you mention writing a new article which includes your code and insights about it. Is this new article available?

  • Guest
    Amine Mehablia Tuesday, 27 March 2012

    Nice article indeed.


  • Guest

    [...] beginning with “Homomorphic Encryption” by Technology Review followed by Craig Stuntz’s “What is Homomorphic Encryption, and Why Should I Care?”  If you can’t get enough of equations and formulas, then wander over to Wikipedia and read its [...]

  • Guest
    Graham R. Poleece Thursday, 5 April 2012

    " It is often much more economical to buy computing resources from a cloud provider then to build a data center yourself."

    Great article! BTW, your usage of then/than makes the above sentence sound like it's more economical to build your own data center after buying computing resources from a cloud provider.

    True, and fixed. Thanks! -Craig

  • Guest

    [...] read, beginning with “Homomorphic Encryption” by Technology Review followed by Craig Stuntz’s “What is Homomorphic Encryption, and Why Should I Care?”  If you can’t get enough of equations and formulas, then wander over to Wikipedia and read its [...]

  • Guest

    [...] 解密系統, homomorphic encryption 在理論上證實為可行。 詳見 Craig Stuntz 與 維基百科。 資安專家 Bruce Schneier 則 提醒大家: [...]

  • Guest
    Shao Zhiyi Thursday, 18 October 2012

    Thank you so much for this very very … very great article! Let's do it together!

  • Guest
    Shao Zhiyi Sunday, 21 October 2012

    Good paper, but what's the next?

  • Guest

    [...] perform matching, compromising the privacy protections. An interesting topic at this conference was homomorphic encryption, a method that allows biometric matching to be done while the data is encrypted. For example, if a [...]

  • Guest

    [...] Parmi d’autres sujets intéressants abordés à la conférence, notons le <a href=”http://blogs.teamb.com/craigstuntz/2010/03/18/38566/”; target=”_blank”>chiffrement homomorphique</a>, une méthode permettant [...]

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Check out more tips and tricks in this development video: