A thriller in the midst of EECS
Picture this: The security of computers worldwide hangs in the balance. Cult-like followers of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras are suspected of a nefarious plot to crack the cryptographic code protecting virtually everyone’s digital data. Who ya gonna call?
In his debut thriller, Tetraktys, Ari Juels (Ph.D.’96 EECS) crafted a stereotype-shattering sleuth to take on the bad guys. His fictional hero: an intrepid young doctoral candidate schooled in the classics and studying computer science at—you guessed it—UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering.
“Part of it was just writing what I knew,” Juels says. Though much of the globe-trotting action takes place away from the campus, the novel offers glimpses of Cal, the Gourmet Ghetto and the fog-shrouded Berkeley hills.
On top of his familiarity with UC Berkeley and its environs, Juels knows a thing or two about computer security. He is chief scientist and director of RSA Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass., which specializes in cryptography and data security. Juels works on such cutting-edge technologies as biometrics, security for cloud storage and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags—wireless microchips that identify everything from car keys to Fido. He was recognized by MIT’s Technology Review in 2004 as one of the top 100 technology innovators under age 35 and, in 2007, earned a spot on Computerworld’s list of 40 innovative technologists under 40. Juels, who holds some 16 patents, studied math and Latin literature at Amherst before heading to Berkeley in 1991 for his doctorate.
Released last fall, Tetraktys tells the story of Ambrose Jerusalem, a Berkeley Engineering grad student tapped by the National Security Agency to unravel a game-changing series of hacking incidents. The tale springs from a connection Juels made between computer cryptography—which creates the codes securing today’s digital communications—and the near-religious reverence that ancient Pythagoreans held for numbers, which they believed could reveal the mysteries of the universe. “The ideas of the Pythagoreans have a special currency now,” Juels says, given the seemingly limitless potential of computing today.
There are some biographical parallels between the author and his protagonist, but, unlike Ambrose Jerusalem and his clandestine gig as a cyber G-man, Juels landed the RSA position as soon as he wrapped up his dissertation. Long drawn to writing, he spent 10 years on the book. “I wasn’t very systematic about my writing,” he confesses. “I just squeezed it in nights and weekends.”
Despite its foundation in computer science and the classics, Tetraktys is meant for all readers. “I really wanted it to be accessible,” Juels explains. The title refers to a pyramid with 10 circles (visualize the layout of bowling pins) that was a sacred emblem to Pythagoreans. Locating his hero at UC Berkeley was a personal—and logical—choice.
“Berkeley has that kind of heady allure and excellence across fields that make it a particularly appropriate setting for this novel,” Juels says.
As for the author’s own Berkeley experience, Juels studied artificial intelligence with Professor Alistair Sinclair as his thesis advisor. (The novel’s Professor Kopf is purely fictional.) Juels also audited classes in the classics and even won a campus prize for translating Latin poetry. An enduring memory was how remarkable his fellow students were, Juels says. One had a photographic memory and many were carving innovative research paths.
Juels eventually turned to cryptology, intrigued by its direct application of mathematics to computer science. Today, his research concentrates on security related to emerging technologies.
“Privacy has been a particular concern of mine,” he says. With the advent of social networking, for instance, “there really is a shift in boundaries of what’s appropriate for public consumption and what’s appropriate for private consumption.” Similarly, e-books are convenient for readers but give providers access to customers’ literary preferences and even “private thoughts you’ve scribbled in the margins,” he says. Without more public awareness, “I think the ones who may do us the greatest harm are ourselves,” he says. “It’s so hard to anticipate the ways data can be abused in the future.”
Juels has no plans to leave his day job for a writing career. But a sequel is a distinct possibility. “There are a lot of hanging threads and people keep urging me to continue the story.”