Genuine curiosity about cryptography brought me here

Estuardo Alpírez Bock is Xiphera’s new Senior Cryptographic Engineer. Grown in Guatemala, he did his university studies and PhD in Europe. Here’s his journey of becoming a cryptographer in the happiest country in the world.
Estuardo Alpírez Bock is Xiphera's Senior Cryptographic Engineer.

I first got interested in cryptography during my bachelor studies, when I was on a university exchange in Italy and needed to work on a project related to software development. The exchange coordinator suggested that I contact the Crypto and Coding Theory group at the University of Milan and they proposed a project where I would try to implement SHA-3 functions in Java. However, I was completely unfamiliar with SHA-3 or cryptography at all, so I first needed to get myself introduced to the field. I remember noticing some genuine interest in the whole concept of using mathematical algorithms for encrypting and decrypting information.

Once back in Germany, I made sure to enrol in IT-security and cryptography courses, and I eventually had the opportunity to do my master’s thesis at the IHP Innovations for High Performance Microelectronics. That’s when I had my first experiences implementing cryptographic algorithms in hardware. Our implementations were targeted to protect wireless sensor networks and therefore, we needed to have compact designs which would also provide some robustness against side-channel analysis attacks.

I spent a total of two years working at IHP, implementing cryptographic designs in VHDL and assessing their hardware security. It was a fun challenge to come up with clever ways to implement the algorithms such that they would be fast, but also use a minimum amount of resources, and at the same time provide some robustness against physical attacks. However, after some time I began to feel more curious about the mathematical foundations of the algorithms we were implementing. I felt that a better understanding of the schemes and their security properties would help me come up with better solutions for the problems that come up when trying to implement them.

That’s when I decided to contact professor Chris Brzuska and ask whether there would be any possibility of doing a PhD with him. To my luck, his response was positive and this opened the door to a completely different world of cryptographic research. Working with Chris gave me a chance to learn a lot about definitional studies of cryptographic primitives and the importance of specifying the security goals a cryptographic scheme needs to achieve. I also learned about provable secure constructions and a bit about algebraic approaches to cryptography. My PhD is also the reason why I came to Finland in 2018.

Not only implementing solutions in clever ways

It was fun to do a PhD in the happiest country in the world. After graduation, I spent two more years as a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University and Radboud University. During the second year, I met Petri Jehkonen, Xiphera’s Director of Strategic Programs, at a poster event at Aalto University. Petri told me about this company called Xiphera and the products they were designing and it all sounded familiar to me given my history implementing cryptography in hardware. Xiphera was already planning on providing efficient implementations of post-quantum secure algorithms, which sounded like an ambitious and attractive goal.

I was very lucky to be able to join Xiphera and now I’m looking forward to this new experience. I value a lot the work we are doing here, since security in communication and embedded systems is a crucial solution everybody should have access to. In Xiphera we not only look to implement such solutions in clever ways, but also aim to have a transparent and clear communication with our customers, so that they also understand the security properties provided by our solutions and their importance. I have always been curious about the challenges that come up when implementing cryptography in the real world, and I believe that my experience in the field will help me contribute to this company in a meaningful way.

If you are wondering what could be the next step in your career, my advice to you would be to look for something you feel genuinely curious about – that’s what I did and it brought me from the other side of the world eventually to Xiphera. And, if you are like me and feel curious about cryptography, my advice to you would be to learn more about all the interesting and important work we do at Xiphera! Read more about our career opportunities here.

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