Dr. Brent Waters Named ACM Fellow

Cryptography & Information Security (CIS) Lab Distinguished Scientist Brent Waters has earned a notable distinction. On January 19, 2022, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) named 71 ACM Fellows for 2021. The ACM Fellows program recognizes the top 1 percent of ACM members for their contributions to computer science, information technology, and service to the larger computing community. Waters, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin, who has been a member of the CIS Lab since 2019, was on the list.

The ACM said this year’s Fellows represent “wide-ranging and fundamental contributions in areas including algorithms, computer science education, cryptography, data security and privacy, medical informatics, and mobile and networked systems – among many other areas.” Waters is one of several cryptographers honored in the 2021 class. After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2004, he and his graduate advisor, Professor Amit Sahai, co-authored the paper on “Fuzzy Identity-Based Encryption” (IBE) that led to the influential concept of Attribute-Based Encryption (ABE). “It had some humble beginnings,” Waters said. “It sprouted from a young researcher who got excited about IBE and had heard something about biometrics.”

Presented at the 2005 International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) EuroCrypt conference, the Fuzzy IBE paper generated a lot of academic citations. In 2020, the IACR gave it one of their Test-of-Time Awards. Over those fifteen years, Waters emerged as a leader in his field. After Princeton, he went to Stanford, where his post-doctoral advisor was Professor Dan Boneh, who along with Sahai became one of his leading collaborators. After Stanford, Waters worked at SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute) as a computer scientist. In 2008, he joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. Four years later, Waters was honored with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), and in 2015, he received the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award “for the introduction and development of the concepts of Attribute-Based Encryption and Functional Encryption.” In 2019, he was named a Simons Investigator in Theoretical Computer Science. In addition to receiving additional fellowships and awards, Waters has also served over the years on the program committees of numerous events and conferences.

At NTT Research, Waters has been instrumental in advancing CIS Lab Director Taksuaki Okamoto’s goal of building the group into one of the world’s preeminent cryptography organizations. “I’m really excited,” Waters said. “We’re way up there, in terms of researchers publishing in the top venues.” The record bears that out. The number of CIS Lab-affiliated presentations over five of the IACR’s top conferences in the past two years, for instance, has far surpassed those of other organizations, except for at Crypto 2020, when the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) had just as many presentations. 

For all the success that Waters has enjoyed, he said that research has its challenges: “It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance.” The example of his younger brother Kevin has served as one of his inspirations. “In high school, he really wanted to do athletics, but struggled a bit,” Waters said. “He was the stick-to-it, the try-hard guy on the team.”

As an ACM Fellow, Waters joins a larger group of computer scientists and IT professionals who have worked hard and contributed over the decades. Founded in 1947, the ACM is composed, according to its website, of more than 100,000 members. The number of living ACM Fellows is about 1,400. In addition to its extensive series of awards, the best-known of which is the A.M.Turing Award (the so-called “Nobel Prize for computing”), the association sponsors more than 170 conferences, workshops, and symposia and publishes more than 50 peer-reviewed scholarly journals in dozens of computing and IT disciplines.

Most relevant to cryptography, Waters noted, are the ACM Symposium on the Theory of Computing (STOC) and the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS). “They also produce Communications of the ACM,” Waters said. “It’s sent out to all members and lets people know what’s happening in research.” In addition to working in the areas of encryption mentioned above, Waters is also engaged in code obfuscation, which makes code difficult for an adversary to read, yet fully functional at the same time.