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Truly unbreakable encryption trips the light fantastic

Encryption has always been a hot topic for government agencies, going back to the earliest days. And since we’ve put so much effort into it, of course we would get a few things right over the years.

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Did you hear about the skeletal carrier pigeon from World War II that was found inside a chimney in England, still clutching his final message? Because the daily cipher for that date is currently lost, we may never be able to decode the contents of the bird’s note, though if it had landed safely at its destination on time, decoding the message would have been easy for authorized personnel.

The pigeon’s message is an example of a one-time pad type of encryption, which, as unsuccessful efforts to crack it proved, is impossible to break. But it makes for a difficult way to communicate because both the person sending the message and the person receiving it need to have what is essentially time-based private keys. They can’t securely communicate outside of the parameters they have previously set up without first going over the new schemes.

Modern computers allow for quicker and more robust encryption because of the use of public and private keys. One key is public. It’s essentially a mathematical formula as to how the message will be decoded. The second key is private, known only to the sender and the receiver. The problem with that scheme is that really powerful computers can possibly crack the encryption within a reasonable amount of time, or might simply get lucky and do so very quickly. It’s not a huge concern in most cases, but it does pose problems for the most secure government communications. 

Toshiba and Cambridge University have come up with a way to allow for both parties in an encrypted communication to posess private keys without first meeting. So users would get the convenience of a public-key, anytime transaction, with the security the pigeon enjoyed with private-only keys. The challenge is that the only way to do this is to send the private key along with the message, which of course means the entire thing is vulnerable to interception, not something you want with your secret codes. However, scientists using quantum physics found a way to make it work, though only under certain circumstances.

The solution, according to a scientific paper published in the Physical Review X science journal,  is that the private key is sent into the fibers of a fiber-optic cable along with the message and all the colored light the cable generates. By using sensors at different parts of the cable, the actual private key can be time-encoded and pulled from the rest of the pulses of light. However, this all happens extremely quickly, to the point that if someone tried to measure the light pulses to get the key, the act of doing do would slow down the light, messing up the transmission and providing clear evidence that the feed was being hacked.

In truth, there are few places even in government where this new unbreakable code architecture could be used now. The technology allows for only a 56-mile long channel, so even our old pigeon could fly farther. But for really super-secret data exchanges between relatively close government agencies — say, a network within the Pentagon itself, or two agencies involved in national security — this could provide a completely unbreakable code that doesn’t need birdseed, won’t get trapped inside chimneys and gives instant warning if anyone attempts to hack it.

Posted by John Breeden II on Nov 28, 2012 at 7:38 AM


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