Elaine Shi receives inaugural CyLab Distinguished Alumni Award

Daniel Tkacik

Aug 12, 2020

Elaine Shi

Source: Cornell University

Elaine Shi, a CyLab alum and professor at Cornell University who will join the faculty at CMU this Fall, has been selected to receive the inaugural CyLab Distinguished Alumni Award “for pioneering research at the intersection of systems security and cryptography in the areas of oblivious computation and cryptocurrencies,” according to the award. The award honors CyLab alumni from any CMU department who have had impactful achievements related in the fields of security and/or privacy.

“I am very grateful towards CMU and CyLab for having been selected to receive this great honor,” says Shi.

The award will be presented to Shi at the 2020 CyLab Partners Conference in September.

“I am proud of the achievements of so many of our CyLab alumni and it is always fantastic to read about our alumni in the news or watch them – or their students – present at conferences,” says CyLab director Lorrie Cranor. “CyLab created this annual award to publicly recognize some of our alumni who have had exceptional impact on the security and privacy field. I am thrilled to be presenting our first award to Elaine.” 

Shi was a computer science Ph.D. student in CyLab from 2003 to 2008. She was advised by CyLab’s Adrian Perrig, and her thesis, “Evaluating Predicates over Encrypted Data,” helped advance what’s known as predicate encryption, which allows one to perform computations on encrypted data. This work led Shi towards improving what’s known as Oblivious RAM, or ORAM.

I am very grateful towards CMU and CyLab for having been selected to receive this great honor.

Elaine Shi, a CyLab alum and professor at Cornell University who will join the faculty at CMU this Fall

ORAM helps protect encrypted data from a particular threat: adversaries may gain secrets from encrypted data by observing the patterns in which memory (RAM) is accessed when a program is executed on the data.

“Oblivious RAM is kind of like magic: it can encrypt the access patterns and the security is as strong as the encryption,” Shi says. “Nothing is leaked.” 

The concept of ORAM was originally formulated in the 1980s, but suffered from its complexity, preventing it from being widely adopted in practice. Shi and her collaborators developed a novel paradigm for constructing ORAM which made it extremely simple, practical, and efficient.

“Previously, it was unthought of that something so simple could be done,” says Shi. “Because of our work, it was possible to actually implement ORAM inside a secure processor.”

Her work on ORAM attracted attention from various communities, with researchers implementing their algorithms in various applications. Notably, her paper, “Memory Trace Oblivious Program Execution,” won the NSA Best Scientific Paper award for “building a bridge between cryptographic research and information flow research and showing how the latter can help us apply cryptographic advances in a principled and secure manner,” and for “establishing a scientific foundation for the use of ORAM in programs.”

Since 2011, Shi has been researching cryptocurrencies and blockchains. She co-authored the first peer-reviewed paper on Bitcoin, and the first peer-reviewed paper on decentralized smart contracts.

“Several of her pioneering papers, including the ‘Bitter-to-Better’ paper and her ‘Hawk’ privacy-preserving smart contract paper helped to shape the scientific foundations of this area,” says Jun Zhao, a CyLab alumnus and an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Nanyang Technological University. Zhao was one of Shi’s two nominators, along with Shi’s former Ph.D. advisor Adrian Perrig.

A recent line of her work has helped establish a new mathematical foundation of distributed consensus on a large scale.

“As a graduate student at CMU and in CyLab, it was the perfect environment. I was able to have a lot of intellectual freedom and pursue research that was cross-disciplinary combining theory and systems,” Shi says. “I felt like I had the privilege to have the environment that CMU and CyLab were able to provide — it made all the difference. It’s the best place to pursue a Ph.D. in security and cryptography.”

This Fall semester, Shi will join the faculty at CMU with a joint appointment in Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering.