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Tech by VICE

Quantum Encryption Could Be Coming Soon to Mobile Payments

The power of quantum mechanics in our hands to better help us spend money.

by DJ Pangburn
Mar 13 2014, 9:00am
Image: Creative Commons

With nearly ever big tech company, from Apple to Google and Paypal, jockeying for position in the mobile payments market, developing secure, encrypted transactions is of major importance. In the future, that could mean quantum encryption: Researchers at the National University of Singapore's Centre for Quantum Technologies and the University of Waterloo (Canada) are harnessing the power of quantum physics to enhance the cryptography of digital transactions. 

The international team of researchers demonstrated a form of quantum cryptography that's designed for person-to-person interactions—like transactions. Published March 12th in Nature Communications, the paper, "An Experimental Implementation of Oblivious Transfer in the Noisy Storage Model," lays out the implementation of "two-way party secure computation," where two mutually distrustful parties interact securely using quantum technology.

"Having quantum cryptography to hand is a realistic prospect, I think," Stephanie Wehner, principle investigator at CQT and co-author of the paper, said in a release. "I expect that quantum technologies will gradually become integrated with existing devices such as smartphones, allowing us to do things like identify ourselves securely or generate encryption keys."

The experiments at IQC used a protocol called 1-2 random oblivious transfer (ROT). Using pairs of entangled photons, a party named Alice shares data with a second party named Bob. Alice possesses two sets of information. Bob starts the transaction by requesting access to one of the two sets, while Alice responds with a set, not knowing which one Bob asked for. To add to the mind-boggling quantum cryptography, Bob will not learn anything about the set he didn't request from Alice.

"Oblivious transfer is a basic building block that you can stack together, like lego, to make something more fantastic," said Wehner. Lego is great, and so is encryption, but what is the advantage of this type of quantum cryptography?

Well, any time an individual uses a debit card, and is asked to enter their PIN number, they could instead enter the PIN into their smartphone, having it perform a secure, encrypted quantum identification with the bank or a payment processing system (VISA, Mastercard, etc.). In this way, neither the user nor the bank has to reveal the account holder's login details. It's all carried out on the quantum level; and, according to researchers, it cannot be broken by computing.

PayPal, Google, Apple, and other players in the mobile payments market will probably take an interest in CQT's quantum cryptography system. And with this research being distributed via the scientific community, it should spur more research that will allow the hardware and software to get smaller and faster, especially with the corporate and venture capital money sure to be thrown at it. (It's worth noting that quantum encryption is already in use by banks and government bureaus in Europe.)

At some point in the future, quantum encryption could be used to secure other types of data like text, email, video, images, and so on. It could also, eventually, be incorporated into mobile communications apps. This is far more interesting than any mobile payments application, though enterprise use will likely be needed to make it a viable technology. And why limit quantum encryption to mobile devices? The protocol could be incorporated into communications sent and received by laptop and desktops, or any other communications system.

What's intriguing is that quantum encryption generates its own keys (through photons), but they would be unlike PGP and Perfect Forward Secrecy. Unlike PGP, if someone attempts to eavesdrop on a quantum encrypted communication, the viewing of it would create an anomaly that would tip off the encryption system; and, if over a certain threshold, trigger an aborted communication. This is a unique capability, and would be a great privacy asset in a world of global surveillance.

It's important to note that the CQT lab experiments were conducted on "big and bulky optics taking metres of space," but researchers are confident that the technology can be miniaturized to fit on smartphone microchips. Then, folks, we shall all have the power of quantum physics in our hands. You know, if we want to spend some money to keep the fragile global economic system afloat.