Scientists pioneer new encryption technology for Google Docs (video)

4 Apr 2012

Dr Hitesh Tewari and Desmond Ennis from the TCD CipherDocs project

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have come up with a new encryption technology called CipherDocs to secure documents that are sent and stored in the cloud via Google Docs.

The researchers, who are based in the Department of Computer Science at TCD, were recently given funding from Enterprise Ireland to commercialise the project.

TCD academic Dr Hitesh Tewari is working on the project, as is developer Desmond Ennis, PhD student Michael Clear and developer Karl Reid.

Tewari said the CipherDocs software plug-in encrypts user data in real time prior to it being sent to Google’s servers.

“We’ve now developed a prototype of the product and people are using it,” he said.

Preventing data breaches

So what was their reasoning for developing such a technology? Tewari explained that although the network connection between a user’s web browser and the Google servers is secure, the user data is kept in cleartext at rest on the Google servers, and can potentially be viewed by anyone with the correct level of access.

“It’s something that Google is also concerned about, especially if there is a data breach beyond its control,” he said. “This can pose problems for organisations and individuals that wish to store sensitive information, such as financial data, project plans or patient records in their documents.”

Tewari said the scientists have developed a Firefox plug-in that transparently intercepts the user data prior to it being sent to the Google servers. “It encrypts the same using the Advanced Encryption Standard. So at no point does Google have access to the user data,” he said. “Each document has its own encryption key.”

Tewari said not everyone might want to encrypt a document, so there’s an option at the start to encrypt a document or not.

“Our technology encrypts a document using a cryptographic algorithm that convolutes the text so it is impossible to decipher.”

And because Google Docs also allows users to share documents and for people to collaboratively edit them, Ennis said the team have provisioned for that.

“We wanted to preserve the collaborative nature of Google Docs. People can share the document encryption key with their chosen recipients through our KeyHub service,” he said.

CipherDocs has also come up with a mobile keychain solution such that a user can access their documents from any machine as long as they have the plug-in installed.

“At no point do we have access to user decryption keys as these are at all times protected by a user-chosen master password,” he said.

Extending the encryption functionality

The team is also in the process of extending the functionality of the software to encrypt Google spreadsheets and presentations.

“We are also working on two new encryption technologies for Microsoft Office and for Dropbox,” said Ennis. “We’re also looking to expand the offering to others browsers, such as Chrome and Internet Explorer.”

Check out our video interview with Dr Hitesh Tewari and Desmond Ennis here:

A look at an Enterprise Ireland-funded project from TCD 

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic