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July 9, 1999


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Mr Locksmith: Ram Suri's 128-bit encryption technology can beat US export restrictions. Any takers? Priya Ganapati

Dil se raeee... Dil se re... That's the birth pangs of Ram Suri's Compaq booting to life. He swiftly jabs at the keyboard and turns off the music. Only an embarrassed grin punctuates the demonstration of his 128-bit encryption technology.

Email this story to a friend. The 30-year-old Suri is the owner of Hyderabad-based Surisoft, a software development and consultancy company formed in 1991.

Mr Locksmith
Infosys Q1
Modem sales up
Suri is staying with a cousin while passing through Bombay, travelling to prospect clients for his software. I meet him in the apartment where his desk is littered with CDs ranging from Dil Se to MTNL's telephone directory.

The next day, he is leaving for New Delhi where he will meet defence officers in the hope of convincing them about his stronger digital encryption technology.

Suri has a sense of timing.

A few months ago, the Defence Research and Development Organisation had issued an alert against all US-made network security software: The US government allows the export of encryption software up to a maximum strength of 64 bits only.

Due to this restriction, most encryption that comes with popular software is too weak to be implemented by organisations like banks and financial institutions.

"It is only for business purposes that foreign companies are dumping their technology in India. So, those concerned about Indian security should use Indian technology. Most Indian companies are using only 40-bit or a maximum of 56-bit encryption software," Suri points out.

"Let me show you a small demonstration of how a file looks when it is encrypted and then decrypted," he begins. I nod my head and stare at the sleek laptop in front of me.

Suri clicks an icon labelled 'Vajra'. "Vajra? What's that?"

"Well, my encryption software cannot be broken easily. It is just like diamond. In Sanskrit Vajra means diamond," Suri grins.

Actually, there are three different versions of Vajra:

  1. Vajra-i32 bit text encryptor Internet version,
  2. Vajra-i128 bit universal file encryptor and
  3. Vajra-i128 bit Internet version.
"Vajra-i128 bit is a 128-bit encryption software that uses universal file encryption. I am looking at the military and defence segment for marketing my software. Actually I have even received a fax from the army asking me to come to Delhi to demonstrate my software," he says, handing out the fax for a journalistic crosscheck.

Photo: Jewella Miranda
Inventor Ram Suri
 Inventor Ram Suri

A sharp pencil begins sketching on paper. "I call it 'UCX' which means 'you see X'," Suri explains. 'UCX' is the core of the encryption product.

Built over the inner core of 'UCX' is an interface. The interface can be written in Visual Basic or any other language conducive to the DOS environment.

The interface is backed up with a security ring. The security ring prevents piracy of his software when downloaded from the Internet or copied from a CD.

"As it is an encryption software it should be protected from piracy so the main purpose of using it is not defeated. The security ring would be provided by me from my Web site. This is to ensure that the programme will not accept your environment until you register it with my site," he elaborates.

Suri's encryption software uses a modified version of the public key-private key concept used in other popular encryption software.

But Suri has added to this his idea of using a common key that acts as a public key and a private key known only to the sender or receiver.

The common and private keys are alphanumeric characters. "There are 9 digits and 26 alphabets so I can get millions of combinations out of combining them," he says.

Suri removes another sheet of paper with some drawings scrawled on it to explain how a message is encrypted and decrypted for a closed corporate network.

"I shall explain the case I call a 'secured group server'. It can be any closed corporate network that would have a central database. The database will have the encrypted key numbers of the different nodes connected to the network. There can be a group of 100 or even 1,000 computers connected to the central database and these computers can be branched into sub groups..." Suri explains while diligently scribbling some more diagrams.

"If a message has to be sent the sender first adds a random key to the message to be sent. The random key can be any number and can be changed with every message. The sender's private key is then added along with the receiver's encrypted key that is picked up from the central database. The message has now been encrypted," he declares.

"At the receiver's end the receiver adds his private key to the encrypted message and the sender's key is matched with that in the central database. The message is then decrypted and displayed in its original form," he says.

However Suri's software can work only in a DOS or Windows environment.

"As Windows 95/NT has sufficient market and a lot of people use it, I developed my software for that platform. You see, more money comes from this segment. But I am working on a Unix/Linux version also. It should be ready in about two months," he informs.

But this is about it. Hereafter, Suri either does not have the answers or does not wish to reveal much...

"How exactly does your encryption software differ from existing US products?"

"My software has the capacity to allow layering and multiple layering encryption," Suri says.

I wait, with raised eyebrows, hoping for more details...

"Well, I have not been able to get the technical data for PGP or other encryption software. These companies don't give much technical information about their products. You have to buy their products to get any real knowledge about them," is Suri's excuse.

But how do you sell an untested, untried product? How do you position it and distinguish it from the competitor?

"My technology is very useful for VPNs (virtual private networks). Since I use universal file encryption any file in DOS or Windows 95/98 or NT can be encrypted and sent on the Net. This is very useful as we can send files. Else in e-commerce you can send only streams of data and send it in terms of packets. My software does not clash with TCP/IP, RAS or VSAT protocols," he claims.

"Universal file encryption can handle data, string of data, data files... anything. It can even handle data like scanned images, graphs etc. Encryption systems today can't handle scanned images over the Net but my software can," he says with pride.

The discussion is interrupted by the frequent ringing of the doorbell and noisy kids marching over the place. "It's Saturday you know, so everyone's at home," he smiles. "No problem," I grin back.

"Tell me more about UCX," I ask, in an attempt to get to the real thing, the algorithm that forms the core of the encryption software.

"I can't tell you much about it. Please understand," he pleads.

(After 10 minutes of really agile dodging and much goading).

Suri hesitates...

And then reluctantly sums up the UCX algorithm for encryption as:

  1. Analysis of data and the key generation (public key or private key).
  2. Key management.
  3. Encryption using mathematical algorithm.
  4. Conversion of source file to encrypted format.
  5. Encryption of the file.
Suri claims to have written the mathematical algorithm too.

However, if you flip a few pages back in his life you will discover that Suri has switched over from science in high school to commerce for graduation.

"I had a fear about math. But ironically, I have developed an encryption product using math. Thought and creativity are more important in this field (cryptology). My thoughts are object oriented for a given situation, for a given problem. For a given task I always think of n number of logical ways to achieve it..."

Sceptically, I interrupt, "Have you got it reviewed from any mathematician or published a paper on it in any mathematical journal?"

"No. I haven't got it reviewed because I couldn't find anyone yet. But I have sent it to a lab called Polaris which will evaluate the product," Suri says.

I am incredulous. "You couldn't find a single mathematician in the country?"

Suri defends "Well, this is not only about mathematics. It is the integration of math with software and so the person has to have a good knowledge of computers too."

I still must have had that incredulous look.

"But I have given it to some PhD students from MIT who had contacted me through email when they read about my product," he pleads.

I am silent and waiting...

"I have given it to some big companies like Satyam who I am approaching for a tie-up. Even they are having difficulty in finding experts to review the product," he complains.

Suri is negotiating with software companies like Satyam Infotech and the Hyderabad based Raasi Software to market his product.

However he does not wish to sell his product to them and wants to give away only the marketing rights. "I am planning to appoint regional, global and national level distributors for my products. I am discussing this with a lot of vendors," Suri reveals.

He plans to concentrate on selling the 128-bit encryption software to the defence segment. "I want to get into the e-commerce aspect only after the laws are firmer. Eventually, I want to put the software on CDs that can be sold over the counter. For the domestic market I will ultimately price the product somewhere near Rs 60,000 for the higher end software involving universal file encryption. For only email encryption I have a smaller product available for Rs 2,500 to Rs 10,000," he says.

The doorbell rings again. But this time it's our photographer.

"My face is very oily now," complains Suri.

"No problem. Wash it and we'll do the pictures," waves the photographer.

After a quick shoot we get back to discussing the product.

Only this time our photographer has a lot of questions for him. Unfortunately her enthusiasm to learn is only matched by her ignorance of basic technology concepts. Suri is not of much help either because his depth of knowledge is matched only by his lack of communication skills.

The photographer is concerned about whether this software can be pirated.

Suri explains how he has put in his software a built-in anti-piracy feature. After a user buys the product or downloads it from the Web site a small application has to be run during the installation. The application file will put a digital signature on the user's machine. The imprint of this signature will be sent to a Web site for registration of the product. Once the product is registered a small DLL file will be sent back which will activate the programme.

But Suri's inability to explain this and our photographer's limited technical background leads to lengthier and lengthier exchanges.

I decide it is time to leave.

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