Hackers are good at what they do, and they’re only getting better. Sure, you’ve got the hijinks of groups like Anonymous, who seem to have little trouble breaking into pretty much any website, even the CIA’s. But that’s just code cracking, finding a back door into a website, and maybe downloading some security contractor’s email inbox. There’s a whole other tier of hackers, serious thieves, who can not only find their way through a maze of code, but can actually tap into the very wires that carry that code from place to place. It’s a serious threat, and not even the most sophisticated fiber optic networks were safe. Not until now anyways.
Scientists from Toshiba and Cambridge have come up with a new way of encrypting fiber optic communications that can practically scramble data on an atomic level. The technique essentially measures the distance between single photons so precisely that any breach of the data stream would result in an error. “We can pick out the quantum photons from the scattered light using their expected arrival time at the detector,” Dr. Andrew Shields, one of the researchers who worked on the project told The New York Times.
“The laws of quantum physics tell us that if someone tries to measure those single photons, that measurement disturbs their state and it causes errors in the information carried by the single photon," he said. “By measuring the error rate in the secret key, we can determine whether there has been any eavesdropping in the fiber and in that way directly test the secrecy of each key.”
Well, that’s handy. Despite being the de facto standard for high speed communications, fiber optics are rather susceptible to eavesdropping. All you need to do is expose the cable and feed the light into a sensor that can translate it into ones and zeros. In order to avoid being exposed, companies and governments encrypted the communications sent through fiber optic networks and sent the key needed to decipher the code over a second network.
This was a secure way of doing business, but operating multiple fiber optic networks gets expensive. The new Toshiba/Cambridge system does it all on one network and offers about the same amount of security. If the method holds up to scrutiny, it could become the new standard not only for state secrets but also for every day Internet things, like online banking.
It’s hard to imagine how hackers would find a way to crack this system. Though they might be able to gank credit card numbers by the thousands, write funny on serious websites and really really piss off the FBI, hackers will not be able to sneak in between photons. A firewall is one thing. The laws of quantum physics are an entirely different beast.