Technology

Newly Developed Quantum Gadget Will Make Contactless Payments More Secure

quantum computing

The prototype of a new gadget could help ease public concerns surrounding the security of wireless and contactless transactions, says a new Oxford University collaborative team.  The gadget encrypts information passed between a payment terminal and a mobile device by sending secret keys.

UK consumers are leaders in the digital world and have mobile payments available on everything from café transactions, to parking and petrol. They have however been slower than predicted in paying for purchases by means of smartphone apps. The main reasons cited for their uncertainty are fear of theft and safety concerns.

Although many technologies make use of encryption to secure connections, not one has been able to identify eavesdropping. Millions of single particles of light is used by quantum technology to send encryption keys. When the protocol detects abnormal activities such as eavesdropping, it closes the communication to avoid further hacking.

The new device uses ultrafast LEDs and movable mirrors to send a secret pin code over a distance of 0.5 meters at a speed of more than 30 kbps. Constructed from a series of lights that overlap, the system comprises of six sets of resonant-cavity LEDs, each tuned to a different position and polarization. LEDs that are polarized circularly provide the main code, while the other sets correct any mistakes in the process and determine the security of the channel.

This handheld device for receiving and transmitting quantum cryptographic keys was built from off-the-shelf components. The device could be miniaturised for use in a mobile device. (Image Credit : Iris Choi. Oxford University)
This handheld device for receiving and transmitting quantum cryptographic keys was built from off-the-shelf components. The device could be miniaturised for use in a mobile device. (Image Credit : Iris Choi. Oxford University)

The team designed a state of the art steering system that will prevent potential hackers from breaking the code and knowing which signal is sent by which light. The quantum key is complex enough to prevent hackers from randomly unscrambling the key pattern. Making sure that the signals go exactly where they are supposed to is the only way to safeguard this level of protection on a device that transmits data at such a high rate.

There is always a natural motion in a person’s hand, even when they hold their hand totally still. To cater for this, the research team measured the exact size of the movement before improving on the design elements of the device’s laser beam steering system, including the field of view and the bandwidth. The team’s analysis was originally tested on a handheld prototype, primarily made from a range of off the shelf materials. The paper’s co-author, Dr Iris Choi a Technology Associate at Oxford University, is however convinced that the system can be miniaturized and made into a practical module for a mobile phone, such as a Nokia. Nokia collaborated with the team in this study.

Choi noted that although internet and contactless payments have become a fundamental part of our lives, there are still valid security concerns around these transactions. She added that with more testing, the team could make the purchasing options more secure, which would build consumer trust.

The quantum key distribution system is believed to be secure. If the code is hacked and an attempt is made to pass it on, the very act of assessing the quantum signal alters it and renders it inoperable. If it were for example to be used in a mobile device, the security device would enable secure links to indoor Wi-Fi networks and near field communications mobile payment systems. The security of cashpoint withdrawals would also be improved significantly, and cashpoint skimming attacks, which cost banks billions each year, would be prevented.

Choi also commented on the unique nature of a quantum system by saying that the content of the key will be changed when a hacker tries to tap into the channel. Although this technology will not prevent hacking or eavesdropping, but if an attempt is made it will be detected.

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