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Thu 7 Nov, 2002 01:37 pm

OTTAWA, Canada (Reuters) -- And you thought you had tough math homework?

Consider the work that went into cracking a secret code developed by Toronto-based Certicom Corp., which makes wireless encryption software.

It took the power of 10,000 computers running around the clock for 549 days, coupled with the brain power of a mathematician at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, to complete one of the world's largest single math computations.

Certicom had challenged scientists, mathematicians, cryptographers and hackers to try to break one of the encryption codes the firm uses to protect digital data.

The solution, rewarded with a $10,000 prize and even richer bragging rights, was reached at 12:56 p.m. on Oct. 15, said Notre Dame researcher and teacher Chris Monico.

"I stared at it in mild disbelief for a while," he said. "I wanted desperately to jump up and down, but the mathematician in me said 'You'd better double check'."

Pleasure breaking code

Monico's pleasure at breaking the code was matched by the contest's creator and Certicom founder, Scott Vanstone.

"Our technology is based on a very hard mathematical problem, so what we wanted to do is validate how difficult it really is," he told Reuters.

"When somebody asks have hackers attempted to break your system, we say of course, we in fact encourage it. Please go try. And here's the results."

Vanstone points out the massive computer power used to crack the code in this challenge would have broken the Enigma code, a cipher used by Germany during World War Two, in a matter of seconds.

The solution, he added, gave access to just one person's key, or identity, and cracked only a 109-bit key, whereas Certicom's products start at a 163-bit key to protect data.

"It would be about 100 million times harder (to break) than what was just done," Vanstone said. "If you could get every machine on the planet working on the problem...you're still not going to be able to touch the 163 problem."

No time for bigger challenge

Monico said he doesn't have time to tackle the next 131-bit key challenge, which has a $20,000 prize, but did share his computer program with a "motley crew" of half a dozen "computer guys".

The Certicom challenge, started in 1997, has attracted 247 teams with more than 10,000 members, including cryptographers, computer scientists and mathematicians.

Monico, who took up the challenge to "raise awareness of cryptography", will donate the bulk of his prize money to the Free Software Foundation and the remaining $2,000 to two men whose computers helped solve the problem.