IBM claims faster encryption technology

Big Blue says its next-generation communications security is superfast. One expert has doubts

IBM announced Thursday a secure method for digitally scrambling and signing data that it claims will take half the time of today's fastest techniques.

IBM billed the combination encryption-authentication technique as especially suitable to secure mobile communications because of its lower processor requirements.

"Encryption and authentication will continue to be the core building blocks for securing Internet communications and computer systems," said Charles Palmer, manager of network security and cryptography at IBM Research, in a statement. "By combining the two steps, this security algorithm will help accelerate e-business."

Encryption is a way of scrambling data so that only users with the right key can read the data. Authentication is a way to sign a file so that anyone who reads the file can be assured of its origin.

IBM hopes the combination technique will be used in securing Internet communications and data-storage networks.

However, combining encryption and authentication into a single technique is neither new nor necessary, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of security firm Counterpane Internet Security and author of Applied Cryptography, a popular textbook on data scrambling techniques.

Referred to as "signcryption", several researchers at Monash University in Australia have been working on the technique since the mid-1990s.

Assuming the technique actually works -- and such checking typically takes years, if not decades, in the encryption world -- IBM's technique is still only twice as fast, Schneier said.

"It's a factor of two. Wait a year, and you get that speed-up for free," he said, referring to the oft-quoted Moore's Law, which states that the power of computing generally doubles every 18 months.

"The real issue is what matters to you as a businessman," he said. "A factor of two improvement is not that important."

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