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Inside the Blue Book
Cryptography and Computer Security

Computer Science 467a
Faculty: Michael J. Fischer, Professor of Computer Science

When Julius Caesar needed to send a private message, he wrote it in a way that only members of his inner circle knew how to decipher. Since then, coming up with secure codes has been “almost entirely a military endeavor,” says Michael J. Fischer, professor of computer science.

But the recent advent of the World Wide Web has brought cryptography—the art of creating disguised information—out of the annals of espionage and onto the desktop. “My goal is to help students become security literate and understand both the kinds of threats that are out there and the kinds of tools we have at our disposal,” says Fischer, who started teaching the cryptography course ten years ago.

At that time, there were few takers. “Computer security was not uppermost on anyone’s mind back then,” he explains. To be sure, banks were concerned about the secure transfer of electronic funds, but the desktop PC, while already ubiquitous, was envisioned as a stand-alone machine. “Locking your office door was all the security you needed,” says Fischer.

With the development of vast computer networks and the electronic commerce they made possible, cryptography has become a hot topic. This fall, some 30 students, most of them upper-level computer science majors, have been learning the mathematics required to devise codes which help ensure that cyber-thieves can neither eavesdrop on e-transactions nor invade supposedly secure databases. In addition, they have wrestled—through discussions, exams, and a term project—with how to reconcile “theoretical models with real world concerns,” the professor explains.

“Cryptography is very much like the locks on your house: You can design the fanciest locks from the toughest materials, but then someone breaks down the door, enters through the window, or forgets to lock up,” says Fischer. “Students are encouraged to anticipate security problems by looking at computer systems from the perspective of someone who’s trying to break in and then coming up with solutions.”

They are not, however, turned loose in cyberspace to determine whether their skills can be used to breech network walls. “Our students have better things to do with their time than hack,” says Fischer.  the end


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