In cryptography, we need a distinction between a cleartext and a plaintext. A cleartext is a message in its natural form. A plaintext is a cleartext that is represented in a specific way to prepare it for encryption in a specific scheme. The process of taking a cleartext and turning it into a plaintext is called encoding, and the reverse is called decoding.

In homomorphic encryption, the distinction matters. Cleartexts are generally all integers, though the bit width of allowed integers can be restricted (e.g., 4-bit integers). On the other hand, each homomorphic encryption (HE) scheme has its own special process for encoding and decoding, and since HEIR hopes to support all HE schemes, I set about cataloguing the different encoding schemes. This article is my notes on what they are.

If you’re not familiar with the terms Learning With Errors LWE and and its ring variant RLWE, then you may want to read up on those Wikipedia pages first. These problems are fundamental to most FHE schemes.

Bit field encoding for LWE

A bit field encoding simply places the bits of a small integer cleartext within a larger integer plaintext. An example might be a 3-bit integer cleartext placed in the top-most bits of a 32-bit integer plaintext. This is necessary because operations on FHE ciphertexts accumulate noise, which pollutes the lower-order bits of the corresponding plaintext (BGV is a special case that inverts this, see below).

Many papers in the literature will describe “placing in the top-most bits” as “applying a scaling factor,” which essentially means pick a power of 2 $\Delta$ and encode an integer $x$ as $\Delta x$. However, by using a scaling factor it’s not immediately clear if all of the top-most bits of the plaintext are safe to use.

To wit, the CGGI (aka TFHE) scheme has a slightly more specific encoding because it requires the topmost bit to be zero in order to use its fancy programmable bootstrapping feature. Don’t worry if you don’t know what it means, but just know that in this scheme the top-most bit is set aside.

This encoding is hence most generally described by specifying a starting bit and a bit width for the location of the cleartext in a plaintext integer. The code would look like

plaintext = message << (plaintext_bit_width - starting_bit - cleartext_bit_width)

There are additional steps that come into play when one wants to encode a decimal value in LWE, which can be done with fixed point representations.

As mentioned above, the main HE scheme that uses bit field LWE encodings is CGGI, but all the schemes use this encoding as part of their encoding because all schemes need to ensure there is space for noise growth during FHE operations.

Coefficient encoding for RLWE

One of the main benefits of RLWE-based FHE schemes is that you can pack lots of cleartexts into one plaintext. For this and all the other RLWE-based sections, the cleartext space is something like $(\mathbb{Z}/3\mathbb{Z})^{1024}$, vectors of small integers of some dimension. Many folks in the FHE world call $p$ the modulus of the cleartexts. And the plaintext space is something like $(\mathbb{Z}/2^{32}\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^{1024} + 1)$, i.e., polynomials with large integer coefficients and a polynomial degree matching the cleartext space dimension. Many people call $q$ the coefficient modulus of the plaintext space.

In the coefficient encoding for RLWE, the bit-field encoding is applied to each input, and they are interpreted as coefficients of the polynomial.

This encoding scheme is also used in CGGI, in order to encrypt a lookup table as a polynomial for use in programmable bootstrapping. But it can also be used (though it is rarely used) in the BGV and BFV schemes, and rarely because both of those schemes use the polynomial multiplication to have semantic meaning. When you encode RLWE with the coefficient encoding, polynomial multiplication corresponds to a convolution of the underlying cleartexts, when most of the time those schemes prefer that multiplication corresponds to some kind of point-wise multiplication. The next encoding will handle that exactly.

Evaluation encoding for RLWE

The evaluation encoding borrows ideas from the Discrete Fourier Transform literature. See this post for a little bit more about why the DFT and polynomial multiplication are related.

The evaluation encoding encodes a vector $(v_1, \dots, v_N)$ by interpreting it as the output value of a polynomial $p(x)$ at some implicitly determined, but fixed points. These points are usually the roots of unity of $x^N + 1$ in the ring $\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z}$ (recall, the coefficients of the polynomial ring), and one computes this by picking $q$ in such a way that guarantees the multiplicative group $(\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})^\times$ has a generator, which plays the analogous role of a $2N$-th root of unity that you would normally see in the complex numbers.

Once you have the root of unity, you can convert from the evaluation form to a coefficient form (which many schemes need for the encryption step) via an inverse number-theoretic transform (INTT). And then, of course, one must scale the coefficients using the bit field encoding to give room for noise. The coefficient form here is considered the “encoded” version of the cleartext vector.

Aside: one can perform the bit field encoding step before or after the INTT, since the bitfield encoding is equivalent to multiplying by a constant, and scaling a polynomial by a constant is equivalent to scaling its point evaluations by the same constant. Polynomial evaluation is a linear function of the coefficients.

The evaluation encoding is the most commonly used encoding used for both the BGV and BFV schemes. And then after encryption is done, one usually NTT’s back to the evaluation representation so that polynomial multiplication can be more quickly implemented as entry-wise multiplication.

Rounded canonical embeddings for RLWE

This embedding is for a family of FHE schemes related to the CKKS scheme, which focuses on approximate computation.

Here the cleartext space and plaintext spaces change slightly. The cleartext space is $\mathbb{C}^{N/2}$, and the plaintext space is again $(\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^N + 1)$ for some machine-word-sized power of two $q$. As you’ll note, the cleartext space is continuous but the plaintext space is discrete, so this necessitates some sort of approximation.

Aside: In the literature you will see the plaintext space described as just $(\mathbb{Z}[x] / (x^N + 1)$, and while this works in principle, in practice doing so requires multiprecision integer computations, and ends up being slower than the alternative, which is to use a residue number system before encoding, and treat the plaintext space as $(\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^N + 1)$. I’ll say more about RNS encoding in the next section.

The encoding is easier to understand by first describing the decoding step. Given a polynomial $f \in (\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^N + 1)$, there is a map called the canonical embedding $\varphi: (\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^N + 1) \to \mathbb{C}^N$ that evaluates $f$ at the odd powers of a primitive $2N$-th root of unity. I.e., letting $\omega = e^{2\pi i / 2N}$, we have

\[ \varphi(f) = (f(\omega), f(\omega^3), f(\omega^5), \dots, f(\omega^{2N-1})) \]

Aside: My algebraic number theory is limited (not much beyond a standard graduate course covering Galois theory), but this paper has some more background. My understanding is that we’re viewing the input polynomials as actually sitting inside the number field $\mathbb{Q}[x] / (x^N + 1)$ (or else $q$ is a prime and the original polynomial ring is a field), and the canonical embedding is a specialization of a more general theorem that says that for any subfield $K \subset \mathbb{C}$, the Galois group $K/\mathbb{Q}$ is exactly the set of injective homomorphisms $K \to \mathbb{C}$. I don’t recall exactly why these polynomial quotient rings count as subfields of $\mathbb{C}$, and I think it is not completely trivial.1

As specialized to this setting, the canonical embedding is a scaled isometry for the 2-norm in both spaces. See this paper for a lot more detail on that. This is a critical aspect of the analysis for FHE, since operations in the ciphertext space add perturbations (noise) in the plaintext space, and it must be the case that those perturbations decode to similar perturbations so that one can use bounds on noise growth in the plaintext space to ensure the corresponding cleartexts stay within some desired precision.

Because polynomials commute with complex conjugation ($f(\overline{z}) = \overline{f(z)}$), and roots of unity satisfy $\overline{\omega^k} = \omega^{-k}$, this canonical embedding is duplicating information. We can throw out the second half of the roots of unity and retain the same structure (the scaling in the isometry changes as well). The result is that the canonical embedding is defined $\varphi: (\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z})[x] / (x^N + 1) \to \mathbb{C}^{N/2}$ via

\[ \varphi(f) = (f(\omega), f(\omega^3), \dots, f(\omega^{N-1})) \]

Since we’re again using the bit-field encoding to scale up the inputs for noise, the decoding is then defined by applying the canonical embedding, and then applying bit-field decoding (scaling down).

This decoding process embeds the discrete polynomial space inside $\mathbb{C}^{N/2}$ as a lattice, but input cleartexts need not lie on that lattice. And so we get to the encoding step, which involves rounding to a point on the lattice, then inverting the canonical embedding, then applying the bit-field encoding to scale up for noise.

Using commutativity, one can more specifically implement this by first inverting the canonical embedding (which again uses an FFT-like operation), the result of which is in $\mathbb{C}[x] / (x^N + 1)$, then apply the bit-field encoding to scale up, then round the coefficients to be in $\mathbb{Z}[x] / (x^N + 1)$. As mentioned above, if you want the coefficients to be machine-word-sized integers, you’ll have to design this all to ensure the outputs are sufficiently small, and then treat the output as $\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z}[x] / (x^N + 1)$. Or else use a RNS mechanism.

Residue Number System Pre-processing

In all of the above schemes, the cleartext spaces can be too small for practical use. In the CGGI scheme, for example, a typical cleartext space is only 3 or 4 bits. Some FHE schemes manage this by representing everything in terms of boolean circuits, and pack inputs to various boolean gates in those bits. That is what I’ve mainly focused on, but it has the downside of increasing the number of FHE operations, requiring deeper circuits and more noise management operations, which are slow. Other approaches try to use the numerical structure of the ciphertexts more deliberately, and Sunzi’s Theorem (colloquially known as the Chinese Remainder Theorem) comes to the rescue here.

There will be two “cleartext” spaces floating around here, one for the “original” message, which I’ll call the “original” cleartext space, and one for the Sunzi’s-theorem-decomposed message, which I’ll call the “RNS” cleartext space (RNS for residue number system).

The original cleartext space size $M$ must be a product of primes or co-prime integers $M = m_1 \cdot \dots \cdot m_r$, with each $m_i$ being small enough to be compatible with the desired FHE’s encoding. E.g., for a bit-field encoding, $M$ might be large, but each $m_i$ would have to be at most a 4-bit prime (which severely limits how much we can decompose).

Then, we represent a single original cleartext message $x \in \mathbb{Z}/M\mathbb{Z}$ via its residues mod each $m_i$. I.e., $x$ becomes $r$ different cleartexts $(x \mod m_1, x \mod m_2, \dots, x \mod m_r)$ in the RNS cleartext space. From there we can either encode all the cleartexts in a single plaintext—the various RLWE encodings support this so long as $r < N$ (or $N/2$ for the canonical embedding))—or else encode them as difference plaintexts. In the latter case, the executing program needs to ensure the plaintexts are jointly processed. E.g., any operation that happens to one must happen to all, to ensure that the residues stay in sync and can be reconstructed at the end.

And finally, after decoding we use the standard reconstruction algorithm from Sunzi’s theorem to rebuild the original cleartext from the decoded RNS cleartexts.

I’d like to write a bit more about RNS decompositions and Sunzi’s theorem in a future article, because it is critical to how many FHE schemes operate, and influences a lot of their designs. For example, I glazed over how inverting the canonical embedding works in detail, and it is related to Sunzi’s theorem in a deep way. So more on that in the future.


  1. Reader Bhavin Moriya wrote me to remind me that, of course, $\mathbb{Q}/p(x)$ is a field if and only if $p(x)$ is irreducible, and this is the field which adjoins an arbitrary root of $p(x)$ to $\mathbb{Q}$. What is unclear to me is how this makes sense when you start from $\mathbb{Z}/q\mathbb{Z}$, which is not a subfield of $\mathbb{Q}$, not to mention $\mathbb{C}$ (every subfield of $\mathbb{C}$ must have characteristic zero). ↩︎