Defeating cyber fraud with quantum physics – the future of unbreakable security?

Credit card fraud and identify theft are serious problems for both industries and individual consumers. Although safeguards have improved in the last decade, there is an ongoing battle between corporations and cyber criminals over our personal information and financial details.

However, recent developments in technology as reported in Optica suggest that these authentication security issues may soon be a thing of the past. By exploiting the strange nature of quantum particles, a team from the universities of Eindhoven and Twente in the Netherlands have developed a system that has the potential to eliminate credit card fraud.

The problem with existing credit cards is that they are relatively simple to copy, and despite improvements in technology (including the introduction of PIN numbers and additional layers of authentication) the issue remains that if an attacker can obtain the information stored inside the card, they can copy and emulate it. The new technology developed by Pinkse and colleagues, Quantum-Secure Authentication, avoids this threat by utilising the quantum properties of photons that allow them to be in multiple locations at the same time to convey the authentication questions and answers.

In practice this process would work by firing single photons onto the uniquely constructed surface of the credit card using a laser, and observing the patterns they make in response. Due to the strange nature of quantum particles, it is possible for them to exist in multiple locations at the same time, allowing for the creation of very complex patterns in response to only a few photons of light. However, due to the quantum properties of light, any attempt to observe this exchange by the attacker, would immediately interrupt the process and destroy any information being transmitted!

“It would be like dropping 10 bowling balls onto the ground and creating 200 separate impacts… it’s impossible to know precisely what information was sent (what pattern was created on the floor) just by collecting the 10 bowling balls. If you tried to observe them falling, it would disrupt the entire system.” 

Pepijn Pinkse – Lead author

Although counter-intuitive, this bizarre quirk of the quantum world should lead to an authentication system that is unbreakable, regardless of any future developments in technology. It could also be applied in a range of situations very easily, such as access to buildings, credit cards and cars, as it relies on existing simple and cheap technologies such as lasers and projectors.

The full paper can be found at: Quantum-Secure Authentication of a Physical Unclonable Key.

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