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Unbreakable smartphones

Image of quantum encryption device for smartphones: the QKarD
This is the tiny QKarD device. Inside a modern smartphone, the tiny QKardD transmitter communicates with a trusted authority by generating random quantum cryptographic keys for encoding and decoding information. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the US, have made smart phone security impenetrable by creating a quantum encryption device called a QKarD or Quantum Smart Card.

"As more and more scientific data and control systems are put on the Internet, there is a greater need to protect experiment assets," said Jane Nordholt, a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

She said this technology could be useful for sending commands to NASA spacecraft instruments from remote locations. "For example, you discover an anomaly in your data and want to run a calibration scan. Rather than go to a special facility that has specially encrypted lines to the spacecraft uplink; with a QKarD you sit down at your laptop, send the commands, and get the data you need to reconfigure the instrument immediately," said Nordholt.

The QKarD is a mini-transmitter that encodes security keys on a photon using quantum mechanical principles. With quantum cryptography no computer, no matter how advanced, will be able to crack the system. According to a press release by the researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, "the laws of quantum physics and information theory ensure that these keys never can be cracked."

It took 18 years of research to develop the QKarD, a device small enough to fit inside a smart phone, which is based on quantum key distribution. This method uses information from a single photon - such as its polarity or spin - to create and send secret binary keys.

If a third party tries to intercept the message, the quantum state of the photon changes and the message stops instantly. This makes it almost impossible for a hacker to eavesdrop on a message. For a user and their phone it means higher security with much lower computational requirements.

The QKarD can only work over short distances, but could replace current security systems for banks, border crossing, electronic voting and online transactions, as it's cheaper and securer than other systems. While there are non-quantum encryption systems already in place for smartphones, now there is a choice for those that require truly unbreakable security.

- Adrian Giordani

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