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In 1882, a banker in Sacramento, Calif., named Frank Miller developed an absolutely unbreakable encryption method. Nearly 140 years later, cryptographers have yet to come up with something better.
Miller had learned about cryptography while serving as a military investigator during the U.S. Civil War. Sometime later, he grew interested in telegraphy and especially the challenge of preventing fraud by wire—a problem that was frustrating many bankers at the time. As a contemporary, Robert Slater, the secretary of the French Atlantic Telegraph Co., wrote in his 1870 book Telegraphic Code, to Ensure Secresy [sic] in the Transmission of Telegrams, “Nothing then is easier for a dishonest cable operator than the commission of a fraud of gigantic extent.”
In his own book on telegraphic code, published in 1882, Miller proposed encrypting messages by shif ting each letter in the message by a random example, to encode the word HELP, you might shift the H by 5 so that it became an M, the E by 3 so that it became an H, the L by 2 so that it became an N, and the P by 4 so that it became a T. Even a meddlesome cable operator wouldn’t know what to make of MHNT unless he also had the list of random numbers, 5-3-2-4. For truly unbreakable encryption, each string of random numbers would encode only one message before being discarded.
About 35 years after Miller’s book, Bell Labs engineer Gilbert S. Vernam and U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Mauborgne came out with essentially the same idea, which they called the one-time pad. And ever since, cryptographers have tried to devise a way to generate and distribute the unique and truly random numbers that the technique requires. That, it turns out, is incredibly hard to do.
So instead, we’ve relied on less secure encryption methods, with the consequence that attackers who are sufficiently patient and knowledgeable can now crack into any encrypted data they want. And compared with Miller’s day, today we have more ways of connecting than the telegraph—through Internet of Things devices, wearable tech, and blockchain-dependent services, to name just a few—and they all need strong encryption. According to the 2017 “Cyber Incident & Breach Trends Report” by the Online Trust Alliance, more than 150,000 businesses and government institutions were the victims of cybercrime last year. In just one of those attacks, on the consumer credit reporting company Equifax, hackers culled the personal information of nearly 148 million customers. “Surprising no one, 2017 marked another ‘worst year ever’ in personal data breaches and cyber incidents around the world,” the report concluded.
Fortunately, researchers have made good progress in recent years in developing technologies that can generate and distribute truly random numbers. By measuring the unpredictable attributes of subatomic particles, these devices can use the rules of quantum mechanics to encrypt messages. And that means we’re finally getting close to solving one of cryptography’s biggest puzzles and realizing the unbreakable encryption envisioned by Miller so many years ago.
Carlos Abellán and Valerio Pruneri’s article The Future of Cybersecurity Is Quantum is published in Spectrum in July 2018. They believe the quantum random number generators will be able to provide all the random numbers they’ll ever need. They’ll also have to continually check that our quantum sources are free from defect and interference and are producing numbers that are truly random. At their lab, they’ve developed a method for determining how confident they can be in a source’s true randomness. Their randomness metrology” begins with establishing both the physical process that the source uses and the precision of the source’s measurements. They can use that information to set a boundary on how much of the randomness is arising purely from the quantum process. Now that they’ve taken the first steps in developing quantum random number generators that are small enough, cheap enough, and fast enough for widespread, everyday use, the next step will be to install and test them in computers, smartphones, and IoT devices. With true random number keys, and if combine those keys with a secure method to distribute them, no longer will we have to worry about the computational or mathematical skills of an enemy—even the most capable attacker is powerless against true unpredictability. Nearly a century and a half after Frank Miller proposed his one-time pad, unbreakable security could finally be within our grasp.
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