People of ACM - Silvio Micali

July 11, 2013

Silvio Micali, the Ford Professor of Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Principal Investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), is a recipient (with Shafi Goldwasser) of the 2012 ACM Turing Award, and the Gödel Prize from ACM SIGACT and the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science (EATCS). A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, he is the recipient of the RSA Mathematics Award, the Berkeley Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award, and the ISE (Information Security Executive) New England Rising Star Award. Micali is the editor (with Franco Preparata, Paris Kanellakis, Christoff Hoffmann, and Robert Hawkins) of a five-volume series of textbooks, Advances in Computing Research, and has published more than 100 scientific papers. A graduate of Sapienza, University of Rome with a degree in mathematics, he earned a Ph.D. degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Micali has been awarded various patents for his inventions, and has founded two companies, respectively, in the areas of security and electronic payments.

Does the encryption scheme for which you received the ACM Turing Award address the current debate about the protection of personal data from being collected, viewed or mined?

It goes without saying that whatever data about ourselves we encrypt can certainly be collected but not understood by unintended recipients. The standards and techniques that Shafi Goldwasser and I put forward for secure encryption are not specifically aimed at data mining.

As an expert in cryptology, can you provide any insights on how society should assess the balance between security and privacy in light of the extensive practice of data mining?

Striking a good balance between security and privacy is crucial. Traditionally, this problem is addressed via policies and laws. What is not realized enough, however, is that technology can greatly enlarge the number of possible solutions. This enables us to find new and preferable ways to balance these crucial needs. For instance, storing all phone conversations and accessing them only by a court order may be required by law, but it also enables those who illegitimately eavesdrop on a given conversation to do so whenever they want rather than exactly when it occurs. Proper cryptographic techniques may, however, make possible eavesdropping on a conversation only if a court order exists, whether or not all conversations are archived.

As a legendary lecturer with a reputation for an entertaining and insightful style that includes stories and cartoons about heroes and villains, what elements of your Italian background do you bring to this calling?

Diversity is a plus. Science should be pursued with your whole being, and the Italian part of me is fully recruited in my scientific effort! It certainly provides a more colorful and a relaxed way of communicating (which is helpful because when we are relaxed, we are more open to new ideas). But it also provides me alternative ways to frame scientific disciplines still in a magmatic state (a state of unrest.) After all, being Italian is also surviving in a perennial state of flux.

As a former math major, what advice would you give to skilled mathematics students who are considering career opportunities in computing?

Mathematicians love deep technical challenges, and computer science presents great problems eager to receive the right love! But Mathematics is also about properly modeling reality. Computation gives us a totally new way of looking at ourselves, the universe, and traditional scientific disciplines. The opportunity for modeling, so as to achieve both great precision and enable great progress, is immense. If you are a young mathematician eager to solve deep problems and model the world in the right way, do not hesitate: roll up your sleeves and join the fun!