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High school senior develops new cryptocurrency protocol at CSL

8/13/2019

Allie Arp, CSL

In January, CSL Assistant Professor Andrew Miller received an email out of the blue from a 17-year-old high school student in Mumbai, India. What resulted was a chain of correspondence that ended with high school senior Aman Ladia spending the summer at CSL as one of the youngest research scholars on campus.

“I get a lot of email of people at different stages who want to do research work, but it’s unusual to get one from a high school student,” said Miller, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science. “Clearly Aman’s case is different.
Aman Ladia
Aman Ladia
He’s really talented, really excited about research even at a young age and it was exciting to work with him.”

Ladia has been interested in blockchain for three years, working with banks and industry leaders in his home country and the Middle East, but was looking for an opportunity to get involved with blockchain development at a protocol level. After reading the papers and accomplishments of many researchers, he sent out more than 100 emails requesting mentorship to build his technical skills.

“Until now my involvement in blockchain was more from an architectural standpoint,” said Ladia. “With this experience at CSL, I’ve been able to explore complex concepts in far greater technical detail than I would have been able to otherwise.”

For Miller, Ladia’s research interests aligned very closely with his own, making it a great match.

“It’s a perfect fit. What I am interested in are cryptocurrencies and how cryptocurrencies shed light on new problems and ways of using technology,” said Miller. “Cryptocurrencies have excited the younger generations because they offer a hands-on approach to cryptography. It’s a very new field, having been around for only about 10 years, or half of Aman’s lifetime.”

During his time at Illinois, Ladia and Miller worked on a key exchange protocol called OPAQUE that was introduced to the cryptography world eight years ago. Originally designed to authenticate passwords, Ladia repurposed the protocol and used its core operating principles to create a new protocol called ZeroWallet, which allows users to securely access cryptocurrency wallets using only passwords. In his own words, ZeroWallet “offers the convenience of PayPal, a security guarantee similar to multi-signature setups, and a privacy confidence as good as paper wallets.”

Aman Ladia (center) joined Andrew Miller (right) and his students this summer for an in-depth research experience at the University of Illinois.
Aman Ladia (center) joined Andrew Miller (right) and his students this summer for an in-depth research experience at the University of Illinois.
Ladia and Miller have developed a working demo and made it publicly available for comments.

“The next steps for me are getting the protocol vetted,” said Ladia. “ZeroWallet offers fresh cryptography that allows for certain security and privacy guarantees. Dr. Miller has helped me get in touch with well-known cryptography and blockchain experts, and I hope to use their feedback to take ZeroWallet from a demo to a live product.”

So far, the responses from the cryptography community have been positive, with most members praising the novelty of the project. Even beyond the scope of ZeroWallet, these contacts could prove extremely helpful when he pursues a degree in computer science and cryptography after graduation.

Now that he has tested the Illini waters, so to speak, he has put the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on his college consideration list.

“This is the first time I came to Illinois, but the whole environment seemed close to home,” Ladia said. “That’s me talking from 15,000 miles away, but it really felt a lot closer to home than a lot of other colleges, so it’s definitely going to be on that list.”

The presentation Ladia gave about ZeroWallet during his time at CSL is available here.