In the AWS Security Profile — Cryptography Edition series, we interview Amazon Web Services (AWS) thought leaders who help keep our customers safe and secure. This interview features Panos Kampanakis, Principal Security Engineer, AWS Cryptography. Panos shares thoughts on data protection, cloud security, post-quantum cryptography, and more.
What do you do in your current role and how long have you been at AWS?
I have been with AWS for two years. I started as a Technical Program Manager in AWS Cryptography, where I led some AWS Cryptography projects related to cryptographic libraries and FIPS, but I’m currently working as a Principal Security Engineer on a team that focuses on applied cryptography, research, and cryptographic software. I also participate in standardization efforts in the security space, especially in cryptographic applications. It’s a very active space that can consume as much time as you have to offer.
How did you get started in the data protection/ cryptography space? What about it piqued your interest?
I always found cybersecurity fascinating. The idea of proactively focusing on security and enabling engineers to protect their assets against malicious activity was exciting. After working in organizations that deal with network security, application security, vulnerability management, and security information sharing, I found myself going back to what I did in graduate school: applied cryptography.
Cryptography is a constantly evolving, fundamental area of security that requires breadth of technical knowledge and understanding of mathematics. It provides a challenging environment for those that like to constantly learn. Cryptography is so critical to the security and privacy of data and assets that it is top of mind for the private and public sector worldwide.
How do you explain your job to your non-tech friends?
I usually tell them that my work focuses on protecting digital assets, information, and the internet from malicious actors. With cybersecurity incidents constantly in the news, it’s an easy picture to paint. Some of my non-technical friends still joke that I work as a security guard!
What makes cryptography exciting to you?
Cryptography is fundamental to security. It’s critical for the protection of data and many other secure information use cases. It combines deep mathematical topics, data information, practical performance challenges that threaten deployments at scale, compliance with various requirements, and subtle potential security issues. It’s certainly a challenging space that keeps evolving. Post-quantum or privacy preserving cryptography are examples of areas that have gained a lot of attention recently and have been consistently growing.
Given the consistent evolution of security in general, this is an important and impactful space where you can work on challenging topics. Additionally, working in cryptography, you are surrounded by intelligent people who you can learn from.
AWS has invested in the migration to post-quantum cryptography by contributing to post-quantum key agreement and post-quantum signature schemes to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of customer data. What should customers do to prepare for post-quantum cryptography?
There are a few things that customers can do while waiting for the ratification of the new quantum-safe algorithms and their deployment. For example, you can inventory the use of asymmetric cryptography in your applications and software. Admittedly, this is not a simple task, but with proper subject matter expertise and instrumentation where necessary, you can identify where you’re using quantum-vulnerable algorithms in order to prioritize the uses. AWS is doing this exercise to have a prioritized plan for the upcoming migration.
You can also study and experiment with the potential impact of these new algorithms in critical use cases. There have been many studies on transport protocols like TLS, virtual private networks (VPNs), Secure Shell (SSH), and QUIC, but organizations might have unique uses that haven’t been accounted for yet. For example, a firm that specializes in document signing might require efficient signature methods with small size constraints, so deploying Dilithium, NIST’s preferred quantum-safe signature, could come at a cost. Evaluating its impact and performance implications would be important. If you write your own crypto software, you can also strive for algorithm agility, which would allow you to swap in new algorithms when they become available.
More importantly, you should push your vendors, your hardware suppliers, the software and open-source community, and cloud providers to adjust and enable their solutions to become quantum-safe in the near future.
What’s been the most dramatic change you’ve seen in the data protection and post-quantum cryptography landscape?
The transition from typical cryptographic algorithms to ones that can operate on encrypted data is an important shift in the last decade. This is a field that’s still seeing great development. It’s interesting how the power of data has brought forward a whole new area of being able to operate on encrypted information so that we can benefit from the analytics. For more information on the work that AWS is doing in this space, see Cryptographic Computing.
In terms of post-quantum cryptography, it’s exciting to see how an important potential risk brought a community from academia, industry, and research together to collaborate and bring new schemes to life. It’s also interesting how existing cryptography has reached optimal efficiency levels that the new cryptographic primitives sometimes cannot meet, which pushes the industry to reconsider some of our uses. Sometimes the industry might overestimate the potential impact of quantum computing to technology, but I don’t believe we should disregard the effect of heavier algorithms on performance, our carbon footprint, energy consumption, and cost. We ought to aim for efficient solutions that don’t undermine security.
Where do you see post-quantum cryptography heading in the future?
Post-quantum cryptography has received a lot of attention, and a transition is about to start ramping up after we have ratified algorithms. Although it’s sometimes considered a Herculian effort, some use cases can transition smoothly.
AWS and other industry peers and researchers have already evaluated some post-quantum migration strategies. With proper prioritization and focus, we can address some of the most important applications and gradually transition the rest. There might be some applications that will have no clear path to a post-quantum future, but most will. At AWS, we are committed to making the transitions necessary to protect our customer data against future threats.
What are you currently working on that you look forward to sharing with customers’?
I’m currently focused on bringing post-quantum algorithms to our customers’ cryptographic use cases. I’m looking into the challenges that this upcoming migration will bring and participating in standards and industry collaborations that will hopefully enable a simpler transition for everyone.
I also engage on various topics with our cryptographic libraries teams (for example, AWS-LC and s2n-tls). We build these libraries with security and performance in mind, and they are used in software across AWS.
Additionally, I work with some AWS service teams to help enable compliance with various cryptographic requirements and regulations.
Is there something you wish customers would ask you about more often?
I wish customers asked more often about provable security and how to integrate such solutions in their software. This is a fascinating field that can prevent serious issues where cryptography can go wrong. It’s a complicated topic. I would like for customers to become more aware of the importance of provable security especially in open-source software before adopting it in their solutions. Using provably secure software that is designed for performance and compliance with crypto requirements is beneficial to everyone.
I also wish customers asked more about why AWS made certain choices when deploying new mechanisms. In areas of active research, it’s often simpler to experimentally build a proof-of-concept of a new mechanism and test and prove its performance in a controlled benchmark scenario. On the other hand, it’s usually not trivial to deploy new solutions at scale (especially given the size and technological breadth of AWS), to help ensure backwards compatibility, commit to supporting these solutions in the long run, and make sure they’re suitable for various uses. I wish I had more opportunities to go over with customers the effort that goes into vetting and deploying new mechanisms at scale.
You have frequently contributed to cybersecurity publications, what is your favorite recent article and why?
I’m excited about a vision paper that I co-authored with Tancrède Lepoint called Do we need to change some things? Open questions posed by the upcoming post-quantum migration to existing standards and deployments. We are presenting this paper at the Security Standardisation Research Conference 2023. The paper discussed some open questions posed by the upcoming post-quantum transition. It also proposed some standards updates and research topics on cryptographic issues that we haven’t addressed yet.
How about outside of work—any hobbies?
I used to play basketball when I was younger, but I no longer have time. I spend most of my time with my family and little toddlers who have infinite amounts of energy. When I find an opportunity, I like reading books and short stories or watching quality films.
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