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ABDUSALAM ABUBAKAR Xclusive Interview
Abdusalam Abubakar may be just sixteen-years-old, but he is the hottest name in Ireland right now. He recently won the BT Young Scientist of the Year 2007 for his grasp of the importance of networked computer security. Now the fear all over Europe is that the Internet commerce may be in for a rough time. Peter Anny-Nzekwue attempts to unlock the mind of a genius.
Abdusalam Abubakar Can you tell us briefly about yourself?
My name is Abdusalam Abubakar. I am Somalian born. I came over to Ireland in May 2005 to join my father. My father is Irish. I joined the local School near me. Within two weeks of being in school, I was introduced to two Students, who also wanted me to join them in a project; they were participating in the BT project last year. So I accepted the invitation and joined them. And I really learnt a lot from that experience. Like how to do research, how to approach things. And last year was quite successful even though it was my first time. I was only just six months in Ireland then, and to be in a competition like that. We won a category award in Mathematics. It was great. So last year's experience was really helpful for my being successful this year because I acquired some skills on how you research a paper, how you attack problems and how to solve them.

You said you came to Ireland in May 2005, so basically you are barely two years in this country.
Yeah, I came in May 2005. I have been in Ireland for about 20 months.

Are you the only child of your parents?
Yes. I'm the only child.

We understand that your winning project is entitled, “An Extension of Wiener's Attack on RSA.” What is RSA? Can you break this down to the language that an ordinary person would understand?
RSA is an encryption system, and the name comes from the inventors of it. Their names are Rivest, Shamir, Adleman, they are Americans. They invented it in 1978: It was the turning point of encryption. That encryption cannot be broken successfully in real time. You can break it if you want to, but it will take you many years to break it. We are talking of about fifty years of your computer. It's kind of crazy. The RSA is being used in the banking systems, military systems and the Internet. The way it works is this: it is a public encrypt system, and that means you reveal some numbers to the public and other numbers you keep secret. Normally, it is being described as using two official characters. We give one names. There is Alice and their is Bob, both work for the same business company but in different places. And Alice wants to send a message to Bob, which is zero sensitive about the company. Obviously she has to code. If he has to code it using the RSA, she has to use two numbers which Bob will give her to encrypt the message. That's modules N and number E. Alice types the message on the Computer and the Computer programme takes over, and using the two numbers which Bob gave her, she can encrypt the message. She sends it to Bob in an encrypted message so nobody else understands it. When Bob receives the message, he puts key D, which reverses everything back to normal and he can now read the message. So the whole idea of RSA is that no one can get the private key that Bob has, using the two public numbers E and N. Until 1990 when Michael Wiener showed that it was possible to break it using the private numbers E and N to get the private keys. His work was really original and none has ever gone his way, and it is really famous because of its originality. But his work has limitations. He could only break a certain part of RSA. If the number N was 100 digits long, he can only break it if your secret exponents are less than 25 digits long. So it's kind of a quarter. In my own project, what I've shown is, using the same kind of technique, but using recent results proved in 2004 to exploit his work, and moving it to the next level. I showed that it's possible to get private keys, which are great than what Wiener did, but using a similar technique.

What you have done is obviously a landmark in science. And it is not unusual to find scientist giving names to their project. Do you have any name for what you have done?
I like to stick with his name. I really don't like changing the whole thing. I see my work as an extension of Wiener's.

OK I quite understand the meaning of your project, but I am not quite sure that many of our readers would. Could you please try and break this down further to the ordinary lingo of the ordinary man on the street or in an Internet café.
Let's put it this way. When you are on the Internet, when you are sending an email to someone, there are encryptions going on, but you don't know. There are things happening behind the scene. What I have done is to show what is happening behind the scene. I am not physically hacking things; it is the theory part of it.

From what you have done with your project, the fear all over Europe and indeed the whole world, is that the Internet commerce maybe in for a rough time. Does it mean it can aid hacking? Can you please explain this fear, and the impact of your work?
Honestly, at this moment I don't know the whole potential of my method. I don't know if it can break the whole thing, or a certain part. Like Wiener, I also have a limit. But if I have to be optimistic, if my method really worked, to break the whole thing, which I really don't think is possible, but it will really have a very big impact in most of the things because the military uses it. It is used for Credit Cards, Smart Cards. That means the hackers are prone to get the encryption people are using in these things. There is also the Internet banking. In short, a lot of digital data will be at risk.

Still looking at it from a layman's point of view, what you've done is to tell the whole world that what you called security is not really as secured as you think.
Exactly

OK, now that you have succeeded in breaking this code, how do you help to find a solution, another way of making it secured?
Well, what I did was to raise the awareness. It is like saying to the world this thing you are using, which you think is secured, is not as secured as you may think. And people tend to use small encryption response, the encryption time from the time of encoded message back to the normal message, takes maybe a few minutes, not very long. The thing is that you tend to have a small one, and the time tends to work out faster. So what people now do is a little beyond what Wiener did and they think they are safe. And what I've shown is, if you do what everybody normally do, that it's not safe.

So basically you have no alternative for its prevention?
Maybe the researchers who are going to go through my own paper may find a way on how to go around it in terms of the preventive measures. Otherwise, my project is just an advice to people that they should find another method of encryption, that what they have right now is not working. Instead of RSA, come up with something completely new.

I don't think you actually started using computer just these 20 months that you've been in Ireland. When did you start having interest in programme or code breaking?
I actually started this in Ireland.


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