Perplexing proof

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Fri Sep 10 08:23:06 EDT 2004


 Perplexing proof

E-commerce is only one mathematical breakthrough away from disaster
Robert Valpuesta, IT Week 09 Sep 2004

The fact that even experts often do not fully understand how IT systems
work was underlined by recent reports that the Riemann hypothesis,
established in 1859, may finally have been proved.

It seems the hypothesis would explain the apparently random pattern of
prime numbers that form the basis for much internet cryptography, used for
e-commerce and online banking to guard accounts and credit card details.

Louis de Branges, a renowned mathematician at Purdue University in the US,
has claimed he can prove the hypothesis. But the maths is so complicated
that no one has yet been able to say whether his solution is right.

"[The suggested proof] is rather incomprehensible," professor Marcus du
Sautoy of Oxford University told The Guardian, adding that if correct it
could lead to the creation of a "prime spectrometer" that would bring "the
whole of e-commerce to its knees overnight".

Unfortunately, most managers have no way of telling whether the proof is
right or its implications are indeed as stated. This could be an
embarrassment if they are asked to assess risks for corporate governance
reports, since they clearly now have a duty to own up and admit that
business could be threatened by a theoretical prime spectrometer.

Alternatively they might accept that security is a matter of faith, declare
that nothing can truly be "known", and add that the way of Zen shows that
security is probably an illusion anyway.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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