By Paul Watters
Daniel Tammet is a well-known autistic author and is extremely gifted intellectually. He was able to remember and recite more than 22,000 digits of the Pi calculation, which can be expressed as the fraction 22/7. It represents the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, and is considered one of fundamental relations in geometry. Daniel described his relationship with numbers in his biography Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. It is a fantastic read, and illustrates how diverse ways of thinking can yield extraordinary results.
Why are numbers so important to cybersecurity, and how does that in turn make enhanced “capacity for number” a very desirable trait in cybersecurity? The basic answer is that numbers, especially large numbers, are essential to the security of codes used for cryptography. All advances in cryptography are based on expanding the search space required to guess the keys which in turn unlock the “plaintext” that a cipher is used to keep data secret.
A simple illustration is something like password length. The longer a password is, the harder it is to guess using a “brute force” technique, where all possible character sequences of a password are presented. With enough computing power and time, all passwords can be guessed. For a 4-digit PIN (typically used for an ATM), there are only 10,000 possible combinations.
In more complex scenarios, being able to devise complex mathematical approaches to reduce the search size to guess a cryptographic key is extremely desirable. That’s where talent like Daniel’s becomes really important. In 2002, security researchers Nicolas Courtois and Josef Pieprzyk showed that the most sophisticated cryptographic standard (AES) could be reduced to a relatively small set of quadratic simultaneous equations, which might break the security of the cipher in much less time than brute force. Such a result shows that ciphers are vulnerable to sophisticated mathematical attacks.
Will an autistic person crack the world’s next crypto standard – or could they help to make better ones?