Work on India's first dedicated cryptology centre – plans for which were first announced in June 2012 – will likely accelerate as the project has gained initial funding of Rs. 115 crore from the federal government, stepping up the nation's efforts to stay on top of an area critical to its military and financial interests.
The research facility, called the RC Bose Centre For Cryptology and Security, is to be built on the campus of the Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata, where there is already ongoing cryptology research and consultancy work, albeit on a smaller scale, according to professor Rana Barua, the centre's head.
In a world where electronic transactions and access to an ever-increasing number of places, installations and objects have made physical borders less relevant, the task of securing them against threats means strong encryption of data is critical to national defense.
"This centre is of course a welcome initial step, but it can't be the only thing. We will have to, ideally, take a billion dollars from some of the big funds, such as the Universal Service Obligation fund or from the next (wireless) spectrum auctions, and throw it at cryptography," said Sunil Abraham, director for policy at the Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit research organisation.
"If the country takes our military superiority seriously, then when it comes to cyber wars, without having an upper hand in cryptography, there is no use discussing anything else," he added.
The new cryptology centre will focus on basic research, but take on applied work for India's defense needs and those of its financial institutions, professor Barua said, developing algorithms, testing encryption products for robustness, detecting vulnerabilities and so on.
The center will augment indigenous capabilities in cryptology and information security, Bimal K Roy, director of the India Statistical Institute told India's Press Trust, which reported the funding earlier this month.
"It is an important element of the overall efforts and framework to enhance capabilities to ensure holistic security of the Indian cyber space. With an eminent body of world class experts, it will act as a hub for all cryptographic requirements, cutting edge research and technology development within the country," Press Trust cited Roy as saying.
Once centre is up and running and, over the next two years, it will have the infrastructure to allow more than 30 researchers to work, but "the problem of course is to get good researchers in this area," Barua said.
Pretty much all the best mathematicians in the world today work with the US government either directly or as part of the American academia and via research projects funded by the US government, said the Centre for Internet and Society's Abraham.
Given that most of the standards used today are those set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the US standard-setting organisation, "we should ensure that our participation at NIST is of the highest quality and we need an army of mathematicians," he said.
However, in India there may be a small number of mathematicians who are capable of the highest level of cryptology research. Even if there are more, there is another problem for them to keep abreast of the latest advances.
In the past, maths used to be an open science and all advances would be published and available for peers to learn from each other. With the militarisation of the areas of maths that deal with cryptology, the latest research isn't available and mathematicians have to essentially work things out on their own as well as conjecture what others might be doing.
Today, every country other than the US faces a shortage of skilled cryptographers, according to Abraham: "Everybody is in the soup, but India is in worse soup because we went with this engineering craze instead of pure sciences and math, we've ignored building capacity in that area."