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Duality scores $14M DARPA contract for hardware-accelerated homomorphic encryption

Devin Coldewey
·2-min read

Training AIs is essential to today's tech sector, but handling the amount of data needed to do so is intrinsically dangerous. DARPA hopes to change that by tapping the encryption experts at Duality to create a hardware-accelerated method of using large quantities of data without decrypting it — a $14.5 million contract.

Duality specializes in what's called fully homomorphic encryption. Without descending into the technical details, the main issue with everyday encryption methods — though it's also sort of the point of them — is that they render the encrypted data totally unreadable, essentially noise unless you have the key to reverse the process. Doing that is computationally expensive with large data sets, and of course once the data is in the clear, it's vulnerable to hackers, abuse and other dangers.

There are methods, however, of encrypting data such that it can be analyzed and manipulated without decrypting it, and one of those is fully homomorphic encryption (FHE). Unfortunately, FHE is even more computationally intense than ordinary encryption, ruling it out for applications where gigabytes or terabytes of data are called for. There are other methods of accomplishing the same ends, but no one would cry if FHE suddenly became 10 times easier.

DARPA is as interested as anyone else in this field, though it has considerably deeper pockets than your garden variety encryption wonk. This contract is part of a broader effort called DPRIVE, or Data Protection in Virtual Environments, and the stated goal is to develop a special purpose chip — an ASIC pre-assigned the code name TREBUCHET — to accelerate FHE by, hopefully, an order of magnitude or more.

The Duality team will bring in experts from USC, NYU, CMU, SpiralGen, Drexel University and TwoSix Labs. The company has been in the game for a long time and has actually worked with DARPA before, so this is not new territory for them.

"Duality team members have been supporting DARPA-funded innovation and application of FHE for over a decade. Some members of our team developed the first ever prototype HE hardware accelerators under the DARPA PROCEED program starting in 2010 and are lead developers for the PALISADE open source FHE library, first developed for the DARPA SAFEWARE program in 2015," said Duality Labs director and principal investigator for the contract, David Bruce Cousins, in a press release.

As you can see, they're not short on acronyms either.

It's not totally clear what the timeline is on this, but considering the state of the technologies involved I wouldn't expect results before at least two or three years from now.