The trouble with encryption is that everyone needs it, and every threat actor wants to break it. Thankfully, current cryptographic techniques are still at least one step ahead of the cracking curve. That could, scientists say, all change in the not too distant future as quantum computers enter the encryption battlefield. But what if there were a method of enabling data to be sent using an “absolutely unbreakable” one-time communication technique? What if that technique could achieve perfect secrecy cryptography via correlated mixing of chaotic waves in an irreversible time-varying silicon chip? An international team of scientists claims that’s exactly what it has done, developing a prototype silicon chip that uses the laws of nature, including chaos theory. With no software or code to manipulate, traditional methods of cracking computer encryption are irrelevant, the scientists claim. What’s more, it is also claimed to overcome the threat of quantum computers and can do so using existing communication networks.
How does the chaos theory encryption chip work?
An international team of scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy at University of St Andrews, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the Center for Unconventional Processes of Sciences (CUP Sciences) has today published a paper to demonstrate perfect secrecy cryptography in classical optical channels.
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“With the advent of more powerful and quantum computers, all current encryptions will be broken in a very short time,” Dr. Andrea Fratalocchi, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at KAUST and leader of the study, said, “exposing the privacy of our present and, more importantly, past communications.”
The prototype chip the scientists have developed uses the classical laws of physics, including chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics, to achieve “perfect secrecy.” The cryptographic keys generated by the chip, which are used to unlock each message, are never stored and are not communicated with the message. It exploits correlated chaotic wavepackets, mixed in inexpensive and CMOS compatible silicon chips. All of which start life as digital human fingerprint images that are transformed into a “chaotic microresonator.” It is claimed that even facing an attacker with “unlimited” technological power, even if they could access the system and copy the chips, would be unable to break the encryption because it is protected by the second law of thermodynamics and the “exponential sensitivity of chaos.”
“This system is the practical solution the cybersecurity sector has been waiting for since the perfect secrecy theoretical proof in 1917 by Gilbert Vernam,” Dr. Al Cruz, founder of the Center for Unconventional Processes of Sciences (CUP Sciences) in California, and co-author of the study said.
Can any encryption technique be absolutely unbreakable?
Professor Andrea di Falco of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews, another author of the study, said that “this new technique is absolutely unbreakable, as we rigorously demonstrated in our article.” What’s more, Professor di Falco said it could be used to “protect the confidentiality of communications exchanged by users separated by any distance, at an ultrafast speed close to the light limit and in inexpensive and electronic compatible optical chips.” Which almost sounds too good to be true. So, does the claim that as the encryption and decryption are done using physical measurements of the properties of nature by the chip, not by wrapping the message in lines of ciphered code, there is no software or code to manipulate, stand up to scrutiny?
I reached out to Dr. Mark Carney, a security researcher and consultant with a particular interest in quantum attacks on classical crypto for his initial reactions to the paper. That’s the caveat; these are only his initial observations. “The notion of ‘unbreakable’ assumes that the only things in play are the cryptosystem itself,” Dr. Carney says. The quantum key distribution (QKD) system that is presented is “probably very secure by itself,” he says, “but like the joke that ends ‘spherical chickens in a vacuum’ you have to pay attention to the context.”
Dr. Carney suggests that you can have the most amazing QKD system using optical fiber to transmit photons for doing, say, BB84 (the canonical QKD algorithm from 1984.) However, if he were to cut that fiber, then a semi-permanent downgrade attack to classical cryptography has been achieved. “The key phrase in the paper is on page two,” Dr. Carney says, “and that’s ‘properly implemented.’ While admitting that the chaotic micro-resonator composed by a series of point scatterers made by reflective nanodisks described in the paper, “is some epic-level technological development from a physics standpoint.” But, as Dr. Carney says, “if it’s plugged into an XP machine, it’s attack surface is very different.”
Dr. Al Cruz agrees that it is true there is no such thing as uncrackable software but says, “what makes this method of cryptography so different from anything else out there is that the encryption is done using physical measurements of properties of nature, such as light.” Because it is “all hardware and physics,” Dr. Cruz says, “it would require advanced degrees in physics to even begin to understand what is happening inside this chip.”
Again, Dr. Cruz reiterated that there is no code to manipulate, and the limited software is ROM based, so traditional methods of hacking encryption are irrelevant. “At the same time,” he says, “the embedded math is based on axioms of the law of physics such as the second law of thermodynamics and chaos theory, so even if a malicious actor were to gain physical access to the chips, copy them or otherwise tinker with the components, it would prevent the encryption scheme from working, but would not reveal the key (which is never stored or shared anyway), nor would it provide any other avenue for cracking the code.”
What next for this chaotic cryptography?
The devil will, as always, be in the detail. All that said, it’s an interesting development and one that has the potential to revolutionize communications privacy if it can be proven to work at scale and a reasonable enough cost.
“We’re obviously very excited to finally be able to talk about the work,” Dr. Cruz says, “and now that we are out of the lab, the next phase is to engage with partners to help us explore the commercial possibilities.” CUP Sciences is pioneering an entirely new field of hardware-based, software-embedded engineering of complexity (or chaos) based technologies addressing critical challenges of sustainable development. This is a part of that work. “CUP Sciences’ partner, PERA Complexity, will contribute with go to market strategy and commercialization,” Dr. Cruz says, but “more partners will be necessary to bring this technology into the world.” If that sounds like you, then please contact Dr. Cruz by email to firstname.lastname@example.org