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From Cryptography to Castles, He's Crafting a Computing Career

Zach DeStefano takes photos at Castel Galdalfo.

Data privacy is a hot topic lately, and digital systems security has become one of the most important challenges in today’s technology-driven world. With increasing adoption of these new powerful systems—especially in government—there is an even greater need for secure protocols that can resist intrusion and hacking attempts from malicious parties.

Modern cryptography—the development of secure methods for storing and exchanging information—is an essential component of modern cybersecurity. Zach DeStefano ’21 CLAS spent the summer of 2019 as an intern researching cybersecurity and cryptography at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy laboratory founded as a secret project during World War II and used to design nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project.

During his internship, Zach developed a system in C++ for the remote zero-knowledge verification of the execution of neural networks (a set of algorithms designed to recognize patterns) using zkSNARKs (zero-knowledge Succinct Non-Interactive ARguments of Knowledge). That’s a lot of computer-speak—but in layman’s terms, its importance becomes compellingly clear.

zk-SNARK is a form of cryptography that proves possession of certain information without revealing that information, and without any interaction between the prover and verifier. This makes zkSNARKs a valuable weapon in the battle for privacy and security.

“There are very few people in the world currently doing work on zkSNARKs, but its practical applications have the ability to completely transform nuclear treaty verification, security camera auditing, secure medical data analysis and more,” Zach says.

In addition to the internship, Zach had the opportunity to explore the area around the lab and Northern New Mexico, and visiting Trinity Site, the site where the first nuclear bomb was tested during World War II. The experience inspired him to focus his studies on cybersecurity and cryptography in the Computing Sciences department.

From Los Alamos, Zach segued directly into an internship with the Vatican Museums in Rome, where he is constructing virtual reality tours.

Zach recently had the opportunity to travel to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s little-seen summer palace, to take over 15,000 photos and do 3D scans that will be used to construct a virtual tour of the property. He worked with fellow Computer Science student Ryan Crenny ’21 CLAS, who is interning with the Augustinians in Rome, as well as Computing Science faculty members Frank Klassner, PhD and Daniel Joyce, PhD.