Titanic or Game-changer? Toshiba Works on ‘Unbreakable’ Crypto

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Toshiba is working on what it calls an unbreakable encryption method.

More specifically: It will be a quantum-cryptography system that will use photons—light particles—delivered via a custom-made fiber-optic cable not connected to the internet.

“Due to the nature of the particles, any interception or wiretapping activities on the cable would change the form of data, making any spying attempts detectable,” explained the Wall Street Journal. “And the one-time key would be the same size as the encrypted data, meaning there will be no repeated use of the pattern, which would make decoding without the correct key impossible, analysts say.

Unsurprisingly, the plans have been met with some skepticism. After all, the Nazis thought their tech was unbreakable too—until Alan Turing got his hands on it.

Some evoke an even more famous infallibility claim.

“It is great to see new innovations and research focused on better methods of encrypting data; however when I hear ‘unbreakable encryption’ or ‘100% secure,’ I immediately think of the Titanic,” said Ken Westin, security analyst for Tripwire, in an email. “Making such claims in the world of security, particularly when it involves new technology is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.”

But Toshiba is going all-in on this: It told the WSJ that it plans to divert resources from its bread-and-butter power systems and memory chip operations to the project.

That said, don’t expect the Japanese giant to light up, if you will, the security scene overnight. It’s just starting the testing phases, and if successful would not be deployed for another decade.

The goal is to launch a two-year test before starting to roll out commercial versions. One trial will begin in August, when Toshiba will support Japan’s Tohoku University in transmitting genetic data—so the system will be using practical data from a third-party entity for the first time.

From there, Toshiba hopes to productize the approach for governments and enterprises by 2020.

And there’s a lot of work to do. Toshiba said that its tech will enable photons to travel 100 kilometers without a repeater—but solving the issue of maintaining stable photos with long-distance vibration and heat conditions will be a challenge.

Even if the technical kinks are worked out, it will need to be easy to implement.

“A component of security that is often overlooked—which is critical to adoption of new security technology—is usability and actual adoption of the technology,” Westin said, adding that the description of the plan “does not sound like an open and easy-to-deploy tool for most industries.”

Let’s recap: “Toshiba’s quantum-cryptography system will come in the form of photons that are delivered through a custom-made fiber optic cable not connected to the Internet.”

He also pointed out that using a one-time key to decode encrypted data once it arrives at its location is perhaps the best way to ensure the security of that data as it moves from place to place—and light particles certainly fit the bill on that. But what about once it hits the data center?

“Even if you are able to completely ensure the encryption of data in transit, this does not ensure that the data is encrypted at rest, so many of the challenges with securing data we see today would still exist and a lot can change in a decade when we would actually see this technology deployed,” Westin noted.

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