Microchips for Future Computing Security

Microchips for Future Computing Security
Microchips with tiny clocks hold the key to future computing security, a system that is resistant to attacks, and also inexpensive, convenient, and scalable.
Technology Briefing


Today, security is often managed by distributing system keys in which one person sends information hidden behind a key, which may be a long string of seemingly unassociated numbers. The receiver of that information can access the information if they possess another specific key. The two keys are related in a mathematical way that is nearly impossible to guess but can be easily solved with the right algorithm or using a quantum computer. Notably, the emergence of quantum computing will make these systems increasingly vulnerable.

As explained in the journal IEEE Transactions of Information Forensics Science, Microchips with tiny clocks may hold the key to future computing security Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have proposed a security system that is resistant to attacks, and also inexpensive, convenient, and scalable, without the need for fancy new equipment. There have been potential solutions for securing data against a "quantum attack."

And some technologies have been commercialized already. But they are computationally very expensive or require dedicated optical fibers or satellite links via lasers. The new protocol for Symmetric Key Distribution, described in this research is referred to as SPoTKD. It doesn't require lasers, satellites or miles of new cable.

It relies on tiny microchips embedded with even tinier clocks that run without batteries. The clocks are really electrons that seem to magically transport themselves between two locations on the chip using quantum tunneling; the "time" measured by the clocks refers to the motion of the electrons. When each of these chips is created, its initial state is also recorded on a computer server.

If someone wants to create a secure channel, they note the time on a subset of the clocks and send that information to the server, which can use its knowledge of the initial state to determine what time the clocks read at the time they were sent. The server lets the person know what the times were and, if correct, a secure channel of communication has been opened.

The quantum nature of the electrons' transport adds some extra layers of security; if they are measured, the clock collapses. That means it will disappear forever and neither a spy nor the recipient can access the information. And, as the researchers have shown, these kinds of systems can also power themselves for extended periods of time with the slightest energy input at the outset, thanks to the properties of quantum tunneling.

This is another security advantage of his SPoTKD: it doesn't rely on outside energy to power it. This is important because, a big vulnerability would be if you could tap into the power source. Then, you would be able to monitor the fluctuations in power consumption to get secret information. The researchers are now working on some additional features for these chips, including the ability to self-destruct after a specified period of time.

Ultimately, SPoTKD could be used to make sure medical records are destroyed after being read by a doctor, or to enforce time limits on software licenses. They could secure voting records or validate NFTs or just make sure no one is reading your email. A provisional U.S. patent for the technology has already been filed.


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