Campus and Community

Técnico alumni involved in innovative cryptography project

Engineers David Dias and Jorge Soares are part of the drand project.

Many of us don’t understand the real importance of random numbers in our daily lives. Random numbers keep our smart devices secure and protect our privacy online. Randomness is still essential for certain businesses and activities, the most obvious is the key to win the lottery or the EuroMillions.

The quality of randomness depends on its unpredictability, called entropy. It’s difficult to find good randomness with high entropy. High-grade random number generators need to be unpredictable, publicly verifiable, bias-resistant, decentralized, and always available. For years, there was no service that could generate this type of randomness at scale. But this situation has changed a few months ago. A consortium of tech companies and universities launched a project – drand (which stands for “distributed randomness”) – that is revolutionizing the world of cryptography. Two Técnico  alumni are part of this project: engineer David Dias (project leader) and engineer Jorge Soares (research program manager) from Resilient Networks Lab.

What is Drand?

“Drand is a software distributed system – public or private – that provides unpredictable random numbers at regular intervals, not controlled by a single entity”, explains David Dias.

“The project is strongly associated with the League of Entropy, a consortium that provides a verifiable, decentralized randomness beacon for anyone that may need a public source of randomness”, highlights Jorge Soares. “As the service is public and free, it can be used both to guarantee the security of transactions, involving millions of euros, or to roll a virtual dice in Monopoly game”, points out the Técnico alumnus.

“In 2020, we made a major investment in making the service robust and reliable for high-risk applications”, points out the researcher at Protocol Labs. Improvements ranged from: new network architecture; service monitoring, with alert system for all participants, so that there are no service breakdowns; improve code quality to prevent software bugs, regressions, and compatibility issues between versions; and a new catch-up feature, which allows users to use drand not only as a source of random numbers, but also as a “wall clock” through those same numbers.

In order to have an idea of the impact that this network may have on the internet world, David Dias gives us a reference point: Filecoin, the first project to use drand on a large scale, which is already valued at more than $1 billion, with a market volume above $110 million a day, just 3 months after its launch”.

The first time that a randomness beacon has been run by several organizations 

The League of Entropy is a consortium composed of Cloudflare, Protocol Labs, EPFL, Kudelski Security, ChainSafe, PTisp, C4DT, University of Chile, UCL, etc.

The participation of so many independent partners, with different infrastructures and motivations, under different laws and from different locations, mitigates errors. “The failure of a data center, whether due to local problems, power failure, or Internet cables cut, has no direct impact on the network. Censorship by a government or commercial entity will require a international coordinated action”, clarifies David Dias. “Malicious attacks have to invest a significant effort to try to manipulate this diversified infrastructure”, says the alumnus.

Drand is directly supported by users, thus ensuring that the protocol remains a living and evolving project, adapted to the needs of the community.

The biggest challenges of working in cryptography

In order to make the transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, David Dias stresses “it’s necessary that decentralized actions, made by value-transfer protocols, can be verified by any person and not only by some selected agents”.

According to the Técnico alumnus, we are facing “a new renaissance” when it comes to the governance of groups, communities, businesses and markets, in which “the complexity of the mechanisms that allow a society to exist is decreasing, while the number of participants is increasing”. David Dias stresses “overcoming the existing challenges will help us to build a global society”.