Crane, a 2011 graduate in computer science, built a basic, working model of a ground-breaking encryption system, known as “homomorphic encryption.” Although he did not discover or prove the encryption code, programming a working model is a great feat in itself.
“I was amazed,” says Craig Rich, computer science professor and department chair. “I’m not going to say that he broke new ground, but what he did was pretty fantastic.”
Up until 2009, nobody thought that homomorphic encryption was even possible until a Stanford University computer science doctoral student published a paper proving it could be done. Crane, a Kellogg Honors Scholar, says he wanted to demonstrate to other students how the encryption system works.
Take this example: For a hospital to determine how much of a drug to order, it would need to search through patients’ health records and count how many people need the drug and the quantities. However, combing through medical files would involve giving an employee or a computer access to private information. By using homomorphic encryption, the medical files would be encrypted, the data processing could stay encrypted, and even the results would be encrypted.
“Theoretically you can do that. But practically, you can’t,” Crane says. The programming is incredibly complicated and involves working with extremely large amounts of data that require massive server capabilities, says Crane, a soon-to-be computer science doctoral student at UC Irvine.
Crane’s senior project, required by the honors college, adapted a much simpler example of a voting precinct tallying ballots. Each precinct would “homomorphically” count the votes and send the encrypted data to the secretary of state. “In this example, for just a few votes, the process was less than a second. It was actually very fast because it doesn’t use the full extent of homomorphic encryption.”
Crane says his interest in codes and ciphers began when he was a kid from reading books about simple codes and ciphers used during Julius Caesar’s time and the Civil War. He often invented his own puzzles and challenged his friends to break them. Computer science became a natural outgrowth of his hobby, as modern cryptology has become ever closer connected with computers and the Internet. (Think website passwords and information assurance.)
In 2010, Crane signed up for the cyber defense competition and helped protect the team’s Linux email and web commerce servers from attacks. The eight-member Cal Poly Pomona team, which also included students in computer information systems and electrical and computer engineering, advanced to the national competition and placed third.
“I think it’s a great hands-on experience, something you can’t get in the classroom at all,” Crane says. “The red team — the hackers — made life difficult for us, to say the least. There’s nothing to compare to getting attacked and defending yourself.”
Crane says he’s interested in researching the theory of computer science and will most likely continue in computer cryptology when he begins his doctoral studies at UC Irvine.