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Tal Rabin

Tal Rabin, Manager of Cryptographic Research, IBM Research

“In most cases of security breaches, it’s not the cryptography that’s the problem. It’s the implementation,” said IBM’s Manager of Cryptographic Research Tal Rabin.

She’s referring to the cryptography used to protect our online lives – passwords, two-factor authentication, etc. The implementation is the software built around that cryptography – websites, email, etc. Holes in the latter allow hackers to circumvent the former.

Tal, whose career of writing and developing sophisticated cryptographic protocols has led to a New York Times feature, World Science Festival presentation, an appearance on WNYC’s The Takeaway’s Science Fair, and most-recently the Anita Borg Institute’s “Women of Vision” award, started out studying computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with the goal, as she puts it, “to get a tech job.”

But Israel’s high tech slump in the late 1980s made Tal rethink that tech job, and pursue a Masters degree. Her advisor suggested cryptography. Maybe her subconscious reminded her of the strategy games and puzzles she enjoyed as a child. Or that her father was also a cryptographer. Whatever the reason, she agreed. In 1994, she earned a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship at MIT, before joining IBM Research at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York.

“My father used to ask me riddles when I was child. And I loved to play games. My sister and I had American board games that were hard to find in Israel, like Risk and Stratego,” Tal said.

Tal made a breakthrough in cryptography right away. Her master’s thesis showed that secure computations could be carried out even in the presence of a majority of faulty parties (parties that don’t work as expected, or even crash). This multiparty computation problem was previously conjectured to be impossible.

Multiparty computations allow for private computations in Internet group settings so that people can work together, or do something as a group, without revealing individual, private information. For example, it has potential use in online auctions and even voting.

“A good example of where multiparty computation could be useful is in sharing medical data. Imagine scientists being able to query ‘patients with diabetes’ from a national database, without compromising patient names, or other information. That’s the kind of pin-point accuracy – and privacy – multiparty computation can allow for,” Tal said.

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A Woman of Vision

Tal didn’t set out to be a cryptographer. But since her 20s, she not only developed a great appreciation for the field, but she also has a greater understanding of how to succeed in the field, too. “The Anita Borg recognition means a lot, because the truth is that there are still very few women in cryptography,” Tal said.

“Other women need support, and it needs to be acknowledged. So, I want to use the opportunities of these recognitions to tell women that it’s challenging work, no matter what, but don’t lose hope.”

Her two daughters get the message, too. The older daughter is studying computer science now, while the younger one wants Mom’s job “because she gets to travel to exciting places.”

“I definitely gave them the idea that math and science are good and doable things,” Tal said.

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May 12, 2014
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I didn’t know we had a CryptoLab. I am assuming that some of the strength of our secure processing on our high end servers came out of this research.

Posted by: Rick Sprout
May 12, 2014
8:10 am

Is her father Michael O Rabin? To say he is “also a cryptographer” is a vast understatement — a mathematician and computer scientist of renown, co-inventer of the Miller-Rabin pseudoprimality test, and one of the fathers of nondeterministic machines; he is currently the Thomas J. Watson Sr. professor of computer science at Harvard, among other things.

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Posted by: Pelani Malange
May 12, 2014
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Great to hear of Tal’s successful journey…. Wish Tal all the best. I foresee a demise of websites in the future for conducting transactions in B2B space too and replaced by smart applications on mobile devices. I find banks in India still wary of adopting B2B transactions on mobile devices citing security reasons and each Bank probably invests heavily on security and upgrades from time to time.

Can this be optimized by the advances in cryptography to help stem this wariness?

Posted by: SESHA SAI
May 11, 2014
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Working on the Mobile Identity project has given me greater appreciation for people who specialize in cryptography. Tal, thank you for you what do to help make our clients successful, when we are successful in taking care of their security needs.

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May 9, 2014
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Neat story – it’s so nice to see women in technology succeed and receive recognition for their work. Congrats!

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May 8, 2014
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A really fascinating and exciting field to be in now, with all the emphasis on security. And she’s a great role model for women of any age!

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