A space-time cloak? Time holes? It's not science fiction anymore.

In the “Star Trek” saga, the United Federation of Planets never figured out the cloaking technology that allowed Romulan warships to pop in and out of Federation space without being detected. But 21st-century Earth scientists are working with ways to bend light and time to achieve the same effects.

It is a technology that the government might well be interested in to mask online snooping.

“Although this sounds like science fiction, the lesson from metamaterials research in the last decade has taught us that, within certain restrictions, such speculations are not fantasy,” researchers at Imperial College London wrote in an online article published in 2010 in the Journal on Optics. “We here show how the magic of editing history can be achieved by introducing the concept of the space-time cloak.”

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It is not just cloaking that could be possible with the technology, they wrote. “The space-time cloak can achieve the illusion of a matter transporter,” in which an object appears to move from one location and instantaneously appear in another.

The Imperial College research, which described the theoretical creation of a space-time cloak, or history editor, was funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. A practical demonstration of the cloak was described by researchers at Cornell University in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

“This approach is based on accelerating the front part of a probe light beam and slowing down its rear part to create a well controlled temporal gap — inside which an event occurs — such that the probe beam is not modified in any way by the event,” the Cornell team wrote. “The probe beam is then restored to its original form by the reverse manipulation of the dispersion.”

They succeeded in creating a time hole in a fiber-optic cable lasting 50 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) in which events could be hidden.

It is easy to imagine why the military would be interested in cloaking. It would come in handy getting an aircraft carrier past those pesky Iranians in the Straits of Hormuz. It is unlikely that the space-time cloak could be implemented on this scale before the 23rd century, however.

But consider that most of the world’s data today travels over or is accessed via fiber-optic cable. The ability to open a gap and slip something past sensors without being observed could be a powerful tool for hacking.

I don’t pretend to understand the mathematics involved in either the theory or the application, but time-cloaking and history-editing on the fly could make system monitoring and event logs useless in understanding what is going on in IT systems, especially as those systems move to optical computing as well as transport. It would be the equivalent of the old (in movies, anyway) trick of foiling a video monitoring system by running a loop image while the bad guys do their thing.

Given the resources required to develop this kind of technology and field it, we are not likely to see it in the hands of garden-variety hackers any time soon. But the U.S. government is interested. Who can say what the practical applications of this research will be?

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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