Courageous ANU Researchers are claiming to have perfected encryption:
Current encryption systems have flaws – as ASIO and Sony can no doubt tell you. But QuintessenceLabs – a cyber security company developed by ANU researchers – has invented a crack-proof encryption system that has been attracting attention from some of the world’s largest organisations.
Secret codes have come a long way in the past 50 years, says QuintessenceLabs co-founder and ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences researcher Dr Thomas Symul.
“If two people share a perfectly random code, they can communicate in total privacy. But how do you transmit that secret code in the first place?” he says.
“Spies used to write down a random number key in a notepad, which they carried in a briefcase to a secret location. They’d use the key to decode a message, then rip out the page and burn it.”
QuintessenceLabs’ breakthrough technology is essentially similar, but a little more complex. The first step involves generating a truly random number sequence. This is more difficult than it sounds: it’s been proven theoretically that it’s impossible to purposefully create a string of random numbers.
“You always need to start from somewhere – a time of day, your birthday, the date,” explains Symul. “And if someone can work out what that initial sequence was, your string of random numbers suddenly isn’t random at all.”
But this theoretical impossibility proved no obstacle for Symul, who developed a truly random number generator a couple of years ago. The trick was to look at the problem on a quantum scale.
“What we do is measure quantum processes that occur inside vacuum. Most people think vacuum has nothing in it, but it actually contains a little bit of energy. Pairs of particles and anti-particles are popping in and out of existence all the time, resulting in a randomly fluctuating field,” he says.
The next step is to transmit those random measurements from one place to another, using a laser and an optic fibre. The unique properties of the system mean anyone trying to tap into the signal will leave behind incriminating ‘fingerprints’.
“Quantum mechanics tells us that you cannot measure perfectly both the amplitude and the phase of a laser beam,” says Symul. “You can make a perfect amplitude measurement, but it adds a lot of noise to the phase measurement and vice versa. So if somebody tries to listen in on the transmission they’ll leave a mark.”
These tell-tale signs of interference enable the receiver to select only numbers that definitely haven’t been intercepted. They can then use them as a key to code and decode later transmissions.
Just like Cold War spies burning their secret keys after use, the QuintessenceLabs keys are unrecoverable.
“When you measure a quantum object, you destroy it in the process. So it’s impossible for somebody else to make the same measurements and therefore have the same secret key as you,” explains Symul. “That means you can be confident that your data will be safe forever.”
Earlier this year, QuintessenceLabs co-founder and CEO, and ANU alumnus, Dr Vikram Sharma, took the cutting-edge technology to New York for the IBM SmartCamp competition. The company outshone 3,000 competitors from around the world to finish in the global top three.