By Laura Ertel
Kartik Nayak, an expert in security, applied cryptography, distributed computing, and blockchains joined the Duke Computer Science faculty as an assistant professor this fall.
A newly minted PhD, Nayak is focused on answering two distinct but related questions:
- How can we preserve the privacy of our data while still allowing computation on it?
- How can multiple mutually distrusting parties achieve consensus on a value (or a sequence of values) efficiently?
Regarding the first issue, Nayak provides a simple example. “Let’s say I have files on Google Drive, and I’m concerned that Google can look into these files, so I encrypt them. But Google can still see that I’m accessing specific files – and that in and of itself can provide a lot of information. This sub-problem of privacy-preserving computation, called oblivious computation, is very concerning. I am working on ways to hide access patterns while still allowing access to desired data and allowing computation on it.”
The second area relates to distributed computing or what is today referred to as “blockchain.”
“When you have a simple interaction among just a few parties, you may be able to choose a trusted entity who can carry out the agreed-upon action, like a bank for a financial transaction,” he said. “But when a transaction involves many mutually distrustful parties, you need a model that engenders trust and minimizes tragedy. While feasible solutions for this problem have long been established, the security, throughput, and latency are not great. That’s what I’m working to improve.”
So far, Nayak has mainly been working on these issues separately, but he envisions an opportunity to explore the intersection of the two eventually at Duke.
Upon completing his undergraduate studies at Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai in 2011, Nayak joined Google India. After working for a couple of years to reduce spam going out of Google Apps, he decided to return to academia. He came to the United States, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science at the University of Maryland. It was there that Nayak’s research became focused on applied cryptography. For his thesis, he developed systems for privacy-preserving computation. He also designed robust blockchains and explored their applications to cryptocurrency.
In 2018, toward the end of his PhD program, Nayak found himself at a career crossroads. “I was unsure whether I wanted to go into academia or industry, but when I interacted with people at Duke, I found it was incredibly inspiring to talk to a group of strong faculty who were so excited and so motivated about areas relevant to my work. The opportunity to collaborate with these people, as well as Duke’s proximity to other great universities and industry leaders in fields complementary to my research interests, ultimately attracted me to Duke.”
Just before moving to North Carolina, Nayak completed postdoctoral work at the VMware Research Group in Palo Alto, California. He is currently hiring PhD students interested in security, applied cryptography, and/or blockchains, and this fall, he is teaching a course on consensus protocols for distributed computing and blockchains.
“This field has been in the research community since the 1980s, but Bitcoin has brought renewed attention. In my course, I will explore and analyze all that has happened in this field over the last four decades and brought us to where we are today.”
Nayak is particularly looking forward to getting to know other researchers and industry leaders in the area. Duke Computer Science will host the inaugural Triangle Area Privacy and Security Day (TAPS), a symposium on privacy, security, cryptography, and blockchains. The event will bring together researchers, students and industry professionals to get to know each other and foster future collaborations. Nayak is organizing TAPS with fellow Comp Sci faculty member Ashwin Machanavajjhala.
“We are excited to have Kartik as a colleague,” said Pankaj Agarwal, chair of Duke Computer Science and professor of computer science and mathematics. “He already excels in the fields of computer security and applied cryptography. Hs research, teaching, and service are great assets to the department.”