WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT
In the future one thing is certain, there will be a plethora of new cyber threats so we need new ways to secure our systems and defend against them.
New research published in the journal Nature by scientists at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US shows how they’ve managed to use quantum mechanics, of the same kind found in tomorrow’s ultra-powerful quantum computers, to create truly random numbers, and, sitting alongside the recently announced unhackable Morpheus computer that’s being developed by the US military it paves the way for the creation of yet another unhackable computing platform. That is of course, if you believe that anything can ever be truly unhackable…
In their paper the team demonstrate how they’ve produced a random number generating process that delivers “randomness certified by the impossibility of superluminal signals,” which is very fancy, I think you’ll agree…
“If you sent in a team of people to examine our experimental components as closely as they wanted to and then had them try to come up with a prediction for what these random numbers would be afterwards, there’s just no way they could predict them,” said study co-author and NIST mathematician Peter Bierhorst.
Their projects outcome was verified by scientists not affiliated with the project. Stefano Pironio from the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium wrote in a Nature Commentary that the generator is “the most meticulous and secure method for producing randomness that has ever been demonstrated.”
According to the researchers, so-called random numbers, used in encryption today, are not absolutely certifiably random because they are the result of processes whose output could be tampered with by, for example, tomorrows quantum computers which will be capable of breaking at least 70 percent of today’s encryption technologies, and other “predictable factors.”
“It’s hard to guarantee that a given classical source is really unpredictable,” Bierhorst said, “something like a coin flip may seem random, but its outcome could be predicted if one could see the exact path of the coin as it tumbles. Quantum randomness, on the other hand, as we’ve demonstrated here, is real randomness. We’re very sure we’re seeing quantum randomness because only a quantum system could produce these statistical correlations between our measurement choices and outcomes.”
Bierhost’s team decided to use Bell’s Inequality Theorem to create a random number generator that could detect any tampering that would introduce those pesky “predictable factors.” They even equipped the machine with an extra layer of security that would require anyone trying to hack into it to have to interfere with two detectors placed so far apart the hacker would have to travel at the speed of light.
“The Bell test is designed to rule out ‘local hidden variable theories’ which posit that experimental outcomes are governed by pre-existing local attributes of particles being measured,” said Bierhost.
“If we rule out such a theory, then we have ruled out the possibility of pre-existing local attributes, and so measurement outcomes must in fact be due to randomness or unpredictability that is occurring at the time of measurement,” he added.
While the theory and the results proved successful the machine the team used to create them is too large, too slow and too expensive to be marketable right now, but in the future it will get smaller. Bierhorst hopes the generator will fit on a chip some day, such as the new ultra low power encryption-capable chip debuted by MIT recently, and be available on every computer.
Although Bell tests have been used before to generate random numbers, Bierhost’s NIST generator is the first to use a loophole-free Bell test. The NIST laboratory is part of the US government’s Department of Commerce.