- To make things secure, it necessary to adapt truly random encryption keys that can’t be reverse-engineered.
- Researchers use human T cells to create encryption keys.
- These keys posses maximum entropy and make it impossible to breach the system.
Digital information is growing at an exponential rate across every sector of modern society, including healthcare, agriculture, automation, communication, and defense. The worldwide digital data is predicted to reach 35 zettabytes (or 35 billion terabytes) by 2020.
Handling such an enormous amount of data has become one of the most difficult tasks in the information technology industry. Nowadays, we are hearing more and more about data breaches, hostage malware and hacked systems, including stories about government and private companies leaking information into unsavory hands.
Now, engineers at Pennsylvania State University have come up with a solution: they’ve developed an approach of creating encryption keys that can’t be cloned or reverse-engineered. The approach would work even in the post quantum era where computers could get million times faster than today’s supercomputers.
At present, we use mathematical algorithms (one-way functions) to encrypt data. These algorithms use private/public keys that make it easy to go in one direction, but extremely difficult to go in the opposite direction or revert things.
Most encryption algorithms, for instance, are based on prime factorization: they multiply two large prime numbers. The larger the resulting value, the more time it will take for a computer to find the original prime numbers, i.e. reverse engineering from the result becomes a time- and resource-consuming task.
Since CPUs and GPUs are getting more advanced and quantum computers are on the horizon, these encryption techniques won’t work effectively in the future.
The solution is adapting truly random encryption keys. They can’t be reverse-engineered or cloned because there isn’t any formula or pattern in the process.
Biological One-Way Functions
The so-called random numbers generated on computers are nothing but pseudo-random numbers. To identify real random things, one needs to go back to nature.
In this study, researchers chose to analyze human T cells – a subtype of white blood cells that play a crucial role in cell-mediated immunity. Since there isn’t any mathematical basis for basic building blocks of all living things, no machine can unravel them.
Researchers imaged a random, 2D array of T cells in solution, and digitized the image by creating pixels on it, making the empty spaces ‘zeros’ and the T cell pixels ‘ones’.
Image credit: Jennifer Mccann / Penn State
All types of living cells can be kept around for a long period of time, and since they move uniformly, they can be imaged repeatedly to form new encryption keys. The 2D keys obtained in this research possess maximum entropy and are extremely difficult to decipher through any brute force attack.
So far, the team has used 2,000 T cells per encryption key, which makes it impossible to breach the system, even if an adversary has in-depth knowledge about the key generation mechanism, including key generation rate, key sampling instance, cell type, and cell density.