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Quantum physics may power card security

Jay MacDonald

quantum-padlock.jpg

The mysterious and sometimes just plain weird properties of quantum physics may one day soon provide the key to one of mankind’s persistent quests: the search for signs of secure credit card verification in the universe.

Jump-cut to the Netherlands, where scientists at the University of Twente have made a leap toward the fraud-free, unclonable credit and debit cards of the future that would make Zaphod Beeblebrox of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” twerk.

To date, our best attempts at card security, magnetic stripe and embedded computer chip, share the same underlying flaw: They’re pretty easy to breach and clone, given modern technology.

The Twente team’s breakthrough, just published in The Optical Society’s journal Optica, takes a divergent path by exploring card verification based on the light-emitting molecular properties of the card itself.

Their aptly named Quantum-Secure Authentication is accomplished through a question-and-answer “key” that uses light rather than data to identify the unique array of photons on the card’s molecular surface. Photons are an elementary particle that Albert Einstein first conceptualized to explain how light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation are carried. They’re part particle and part wave; here and not-here.

Because photons have the unique ability to be in two (or more) places at once, their singular “answer” to the Quantum-Secure Authentication question can be verified, even with the card literally in pieces. Since it’s light and not data, there’s nothing for fraudsters to steal or copy.

Did I just blow your mind? I think I did.

All that’s needed to turn your Visa into a quantum light saber is a thin dab of white paint containing millions of nanoparticles (no, they’re not available on Amazon). A laser would then send individual photons of light into this microscopic house party to establish a unique question-answer relationship that would defy hacking, even by future technologies.

Perhaps the best news: Quantum-Secure Authentication could be up and running for the cost of a few lasers, projectors — and that special white paint, of course.

Will team Twente’s quantum leap catch on? Who knows.

But wherever the quest for card security might lead us, it’s wise to heed the sage advice of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” cardholder Arthur Dent: Don’t forget your towel.

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