NET NEWS: Irish Lass Invents Crypto Code

Science  29 Jan 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5402, pp. 599
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5402.599b

A teenager from Blarney, Ireland, has become a media darling with her cryptography scheme that she claims is as secure as, but much faster than, the prevailing method for encoding Internet messages. Crypto experts, although skeptical, say they're eager to see the algorithm published.

Sixteen-year-old Sarah Flannery won Ireland's 1999 Esat Telecom Young Scientist contest earlier this month with her project, called “Cryptography—A new algorithm versus the RSA.” The RSA, invented in 1977, is a mathematical technique used widely to encrypt e-mail and credit card transactions. Like RSA, Flannery's code is a public key method—part of the key is public, rather than kept secret by the two people using it—and involves factoring two prime numbers. But Flannery's method, which uses smaller numbers and 2-by-2 matrix multiplication, is faster than RSA at higher security levels, Flannery says. It whittles from 30 minutes to a mere 60 seconds the time needed to encrypt a letter with a 1000-bit key. She now intends to patent the code, which she began developing last year as an intern at a Dublin technology firm.

Although Flannery's prize has made her a celebrity—the Times of London, the Guardian, and the BBC and ABC News have all featured her story—some cryptographers are dubious about how long her fame will last. “This sounds like it will be broken a few days after the details become public,” wrote Bruce Schneier, president of Counterpane Systems, on an Internet discussion group last week. But other experts find the idea intriguing: “I think there may be something in it,” wrote Derek Bell of Trinity College Dublin.

Flannery seems to be taking the criticism in stride, telling Science she's eager to publish her algorithm to find out “if it can stand up to peer review.” And even Schneier adds in his January Crypto-Gram online newsletter: “It is cool to see serious cryptography out of a new researcher.” And one barely out of puberty, at that.

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