Thoughts on Applied Cryptography Research

If you follow me on Twitter you have no doubt heard my occasional outbursts and rants on what I perceive to be biases in the current publication model in cryptography. In short, I think that top cryptography conferences are heavily biased against certain areas of cryptography and for others.

Some of the areas that I think have a much harder time getting into top-tier crypto conferences include Applied Cryptography. I don' t think this is particularly controversial and, from what I hear, CRYPTO has even tried to rectify this recently (e.g., by accepting some applied MPC papers).

Nevertheless, this is a serious problem for applied crypto research since applied crypto papers don' t really have a home. Realistically, your choice in venues include CCS, NDSS, Usenix, Oakland and Financial Crypto. Notice that all these conferences are security conferences and as such they only have a limited number of places for crypto research. And a consequence of this is that competition for these few places is very high.

Another consequence of the current situation is that applied crypto papers are dispersed in many different venues. In addition to the ones listed above you also find them in Esorics, AsiaCCS, ACNS etc. This makes it very hard to keep track of new results (having ePrint helps a bit here) and even harder to build any kind of community since no one is at the same place at the same time. This impacts possible collaborations, opportunities for students etc.

Another issue is that these papers don' t get the visibility they deserve and this is problematic because some of the work is very strong and, more importantly, this is the work that has the most potential for impact. Think about that for a second: the type of work that has the highest chance of having impact on society has a harder time being accepted at top-tier conferences. How can this not be a serious problem for the community?

A final consequence is that because these works do not receive the visibility they deserve, less people tend to work on applied problems. I may be cynical, but unfortunately I think many researchers choose their problems (at least in part) as a function of the recognition they might receive from their community for their work. I can' t always blame researchers for this since the academic system is setup to incentivize this (especially when you are student). With the current situation, therefore, I suspect that many researchers and students who might be interested in (or at least open to) applied work may shy away from it since the short-term rewards like top-tier crypto papers and visibility is less likely to materialize. An alternative way in which this could be affecting researchers is that the pull from other areas that do get more recognition (in the form of top-tier papers and visibility) is too hard to compete with for applied crypto.

Obviously, I would like this to be fixed somehow especially so that applied crypto can still attract good students. But my sense is that the larger crypto community doesn' t really care that much (modulo, perhaps, the alleged efforts made by CRYPTO recently).

In the meantime, I thought it might be good to highlight a few applied crypto papers written by up-and-coming researchers (i.e., mostly students, postdocs and junior researchers) that I find particularly interesting. So I asked a handful of young researchers if they would be interested in writing guest posts summarizing some of their work. I' ll be posting some of these summaries in a new series that will start soon. How long the series will be will obviously depend on how many people are interested in writing. Hopefully we will have at least two or three.

Let me stress that this series will obviously be subjective and biased towards topics that I like and people that I know (though I won' t be hesitant to invite people I don' t know if I like their work). This is unavoidable since these are papers that I' m inviting to be summarized on my blog. So please do not complain in the comments that your paper was not invited to be discussed.

With that out of the way, I hope you enjoy the series.