On crypto conferences

View of the UCSB campus in Santa Barbara, CA, where CRYPTO is held since 1981

Created in 1981, CRYPTO has historically been the most important and most relevant crypto conference. But CRYPTO has also always been aimed at cryptographers whose job is to publish research papers, rather than cryptographers whose job is to actually secure things. The conference for this latter community is instead Real World Crypto (RWC). RWC started in 2012, initiated by a group of practice-oriented academic researchers, and has been a tremendous success since then. (We’re happy to be one of the sponsors of the 2018 edition in Zurich!)

Fundamental research is important, but as I pointed out in my CTCrypt talk most of the new crypto is now driven by practitioners, because it’s driven by new technologies and real use cases’ needs—think of the Signal protocol for end-to-end messaging, Wire’s multi-device group messaging and calls, TLS 1.3, Tor and other anonymity systems, blockchain protocols, Let’s Encrypt, Noise, Wireguard, and so on. The home of this crypto is more RWC than CRYPTO: only about half of dozen of the 72 CRYPTO papers this year are clearly practice-oriented, and the “Real-World Crypto” track only includes a measly four papers.

But this doesn’t mean that CRYPTO is irrelevant. CRYPTO is (with EUROCRYPT) the venue where you’ll find the latest research on lattice-based schemes and their security, number theory, cryptanalysis, topics which often have concrete applications today or in a near future. CRYPTO is just more about the core crypto algorithms than about their applications. For example, at RWC you might hear about ZCash’s use of BN curves, while at CRYPTO you’ll learn about the (in)security of said curves.

The upshot is that if you care about deep, mathematical, but often not-so-useful-in-the-short-term crypto research, then you should go to Santa Barbara. But if you’re an engineer and if your job is to solve security problems now, better save your money for RWC 2018.

PS: Last time I went to CRYPTO was in 2010, and I’ve never been to RWC, only watched the talks online. But I’ll definitely be in Zurich in 2018.

(Thanks to Frederic Jacobs and Antony Vennard for their feedback on an early version of this post.)