Ian Miers Receives Test of Time Award at IEEE Security Symposium

Miers, an expert in cryptography, was recognized for his pioneering work involving the security of blockchain transactions.
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A University of Maryland expert in cryptography was just recognized for his pioneering work involving the security of blockchain transactions, which use an advanced database mechanism that allows transparent information sharing within a business network.

Ian Miers, an assistant professor of computer science with an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), was part of a team that won an IEEE Security and Privacy Test of Time award for a paper they authored in 2014.

Zerocash: Decentralized Payments from Bitcoin” builds a protocol for private payments on a blockchain using what was—at the time—a new kind of zero-knowledge proof called a zero-knowledge Succinct Non-interactive Argument of Knowledge (zkSNARK).

Zerocash allowed people to pay each other privately even when everything on the blockchain was public. The cryptographic techniques developed in Zerocash were commercially deployed in a number of cryptocurrency protocols including Zcash, Tornado Cash, and Railgun.

The Test of Time award recognizes papers published at IEEE’s flagship security conference that have made a lasting impact on the field. To qualify, a paper must have been published at an IEEE Symposium on Security and Policy between 10 and 12 years prior.

The scheme that Miers and his colleagues developed a decade ago fixed an inherent weakness, wherein every user's payment history was recorded in public view on the blockchain.

While there were rudimentary techniques available at the time to disguise this information, they were problematic and ineffective. Instead, using Zerocash, users could pay one another directly via transactions that revealed neither the origin, destination, nor the amount of the payment.

Anonymity in cryptocurrency transactions is crucial for protecting user privacy, ensuring security, preventing censorship, and avoiding discrimination, Miers says. Anonymity also supports financial freedom, allowing users to conduct transactions without fear of being blocked or censored, especially in regions with restrictive regimes.

Miers says when the team wrote their paper in 2014, they were not certain if various forms of cryptocurrencies would grow, but they knew they would need some fixes if they did.

“Many forms of crypto are like Twitter for your bank account—everything you do is public to anyone who can download the blockchain,” says Miers, who is also a core member in the Maryland Cybersecurity Center (MC2). “You need privacy for what’s on the blockchain, but you still need everyone to be able to verify there is no funny business. How do you do this? Our paper pioneered using a new kind of zero-knowledge to solve real-world security and privacy problems.”

Specifically, he says, it led to a “whole landslide” of papers and commercially deployed systems using zkSNARKs—a powerful cryptographic tool that enables secure and private verification of knowledge without revealing the knowledge itself—for blockchains and verifiable computation.

Nicolas Christin, chair of the IEEE Test of Time awards committee and a professor with dual appointments in computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says Miers’s paper was selected after a very rigorous process.

Members of the committee noted its ongoing influence on the cryptocurrency research community, where it continues to be extensively cited and has shaped numerous subsequent works, Christin says.

Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science and the director of MC2, also praised Miers’s impactful research.

“The award-winning paper demonstrates the lasting value of Ian’s work applying cryptography to real-world use cases,” she says. “His work fits so well in MC2 because it bridges among many of our diverse research interests, making for connections and collaborations across the center.”

Miers was a doctoral student at John Hopkins University (JHU) when the paper was published. Co-authors on the paper were Christina Garman (then also at JHU, now an assistant professor of computer science at Purdue University) and Matthew Green (also from JHU); Eli Ben-Sassoon (then a professor at the Technion, now co-founder of Starkware); Alessandro Chiesa (then MIT, now a professor of computer science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, known as EPFL) and Midars Virsa (MIT), and Eran Tromer (then a professor at Tel Aviv University, now at Boston University).

Miers and his co-authors were honored with the Test of Time award at the 45th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (IEEE S&P), held this year from May 20–23 in San Francisco.

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld, UMIACS communications group

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