Newark boasts a large – and growing – tech force. Brainwalk, an occasional series, will introduce you to some of its rising stars.
You’ve seen the ominous headlines. Armies of hackers working at the behest of hostile nation-states 24/7 to steal intelligence from our defense agencies. Apolitical hacker-thieves breaking into companies to cop trade secrets and our credit histories, medical data, personal secrets.
Amidst all the fun and games and “likes,” there’s darkness afoot in cyberspace.
Kurt Rohloff stands squarely against these invisible forces. Co-founder of the cybersecurity start-up, Duality Technologies, and director of the NJIT Cybersecurity Research Center, Rohloff is working full-throttle from his Newark base with the ambitious mission of developing a new worldwide cybersecurity standard that will be unhackable.
You might expect him to look fierce, or at least harried and distracted, even disheveled. Consider his challenges. The forces he is up against are evil. The math he needs to think through to attack the problem is ridiculously hard. And unhackable codes? It’s a moving target and only been achieved a few times in history. Slowly, each standard has fallen. A new encryption system needs to be so good it is “post-quantum.” This means that its code can’t be cracked by so-called “quantum computers,” devices so complicated and daunting that only a handful are in operation.
But on a recent, sweltering July morning, walking through the halls of NJIT’s shiny new Enterprise Development Center, Rohloff is a cool customer. His light brown hair is cut short and slicked back. His khaki pants and short-sleeved gingham shirt are neatly pressed. He is so bright and cheery, one might think he is headed to a barbecue.
Rohloff, who is 40, draws his fortitude and attitude from his New England childhood in Bethany, a small town dotted with woods and streams in rural south-central Connecticut.
“Where I grew up, everyone practiced self-sufficiency,” he said. “Our family made our own maple syrup. We cut the logs we used to heat the house. Things might go wrong, of course. But you get your head together and figure out what is going on.”
He spent countless hours with his grandfather, a retired electrical engineer who lived nearby, and his father, a mechanical engineer employed by the defense contractor, Sikorsky Aircraft. They built a log-splitter, with a motor, hydraulic pump, and actuator, from scratch. They launched model rockets. He learned to write basic computer code on their fledgling IBM PC clones. When his father gave him a car, it was a non-working, 30-year-old 1964 Ford Mustang. He rebuilt it piece by piece. It often broke down on his way to high school.
“It didn’t really bother me,” he said. “It was usually the carburetor. I’d have to take it out, clean it up.” He’d make it to school, just in time.
Rohloff earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was compelled to substitute grits for his standard New England breakfast of oatmeal. “I learned it’s good to try new things,” he said.
After earning his doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, he joined BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., where Internet pioneers, like email inventor Ray Tomlinson, worked down the hallway.
Through BBN, Rohloff worked for the Defense Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, the branch of the U.S. Defense Department that funds “blue sky” projects. In 2009, there was a fundamental breakthrough in computer science. The idea was called “homomorphic encryption.”
“Theoretically, you could take data and encrypt it and run computations on the data while still encrypted,” Rohloff said. “This breakthrough spun off a whole new genre of computer science. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
He was tasked to lead a team to delve into the subject and has been working at it ever since. His company, Duality, is centered on the idea of commercializing the applications of homomorphic encryption.
“In general, you don’t know what the threats are until it’s too late,” said Rohloff, who spends a lot of time thinking about what he calls the “defense in depth” concept. “Whether it’s a malicious insider, or a hostile nation-state, you can’t rely on any one technology to keep you safe.”
Rohloff, decided to base the American headquarters of his start-up in one of the university’s modest incubator space offices because he sees Newark, and NJIT in particular, “on a very upward swing.” The city’s entrepreneurial culture has grown decidedly, he said, since he joined the NJIT faculty in 2014. He wants to be a part of that success story and contribute to it.
In cryptography, ordinary information is protected by being converted into unintelligible “ciphertext” before it is stored or transmitted. Decryption occurs in the reverse. A current widely used encryption standard, AES (Advanced Encryption Standards), protects data for many, including users of Facebook Messenger, VPNs, master password apps, and file compression tools.
But computer scientists worry that its time is running out. A hostile power could conceivably store away AES-encrypted information and, with the advent of powerful “quantum” computers in another decade or so, crack the code and access the data.
Homomorphic encryption, which is part of a family of “lattice” cryptosystems, is a likely candidate for a new standard, Rohloff said. The process takes tabular data, such as financial or medical data stored on an Excel spreadsheet, and converts it into “vectors” of 16,000 dimensions.
“We’re basically using very high-dimension systems and we are embedding information into these vector spaces,” Rohloff said.
Bringing such high-level mathematical concepts to bear on the development of a useful system will take years of work, Rohloff said. It’s a mega-project, but a project all the same. And Rohloff has spent much of his intellectual life working through them. Tirelessly. Assiduously.
“It’s a pressing challenge,” Rohloff said, as heads back toward his one-room headquarters, staffed with two computer-savvy employees, dual-screen computers, coffee machines, and a yet-to-be mounted whiteboard. “It’s not something that is going to go away. And we are working very hard on it.”
Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who previously worked for The Star-Ledger. She teaches journalism at St. Benedicts Prep.