An atomic-scale fingerprint could boost the security of connected devices, according to British scientists who have developed it.
The tiny identity tags are essentially tiny imperfections in the building blocks of matter, making them virtually impossible to clone.
They could be used as the basis of a robust system for authenticating hardware and software,
Details of the work are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The researchers from the UK universities of Lancaster and Manchester built tiny, layered metallic structures in the lab and incorporated “design flaws” that were unique to the item.
“What you do is shrink these systems down as far as they will go,” Dr Jonathan Roberts from Lancaster told BBC News.
“And the interesting thing is that you can’t clone them. To clone them, you’d effectively have to measure [the fingerprints] atom-by-atom. You just can’t do it.”
The fingerprint structures were demonstrated at the nano-scale where the laws of quantum mechanics take over from the ones that predominate at larger scales.
But the researchers say it is a proof of principle which could be integrated into existing chip manufacturing processes.
“These could be used to authenticate any electronic equipment and be 100% secure,” said Dr Roberts.
“Having one of these devices in each and every piece of electronic equipment, you could challenge that electronic device and see what it outputs in order to identify it.”
“If you imagine self-driving cars communicating with a fake server, that could have dramatic consequences.”
The technology is already being commercialised through a spin-out company Quantum Base.
he ground-breaking atomic-scale devices do not require passwords, and are impervious to cloning, making them the most secure system ever made. Coupled with the fact that they can be incorporated into any material makes them an ideal candidate to replace existing authentication technologies.
Writing in Nature’s Scientific Reports, the researchers said: “Simulating these structures requires vast computing power and is not achievable in a reasonable timescale, even with a quantum computer. When coupled with the fact that the underlying structure is unknown, unless dismantled atom-by-atom, this makes simulation extremely difficult.
“While inhomogeneity in the fabrication of nanostructures often leads to unpredictable behaviour of the final device, which is normally undesirable, we have proposed and demonstrated a potential use for the quantum behaviour of atomically irreproducible systems.”
The reported Q-ID device, which uses an electronic measurement with CMOS compatible technology, can easily be integrated into existing chip manufacturing processes, enabling cost effective mass-production. The new devices also have many additional features such as the ability to track-and-trace a product throughout the supply chain, and individual addressability, allowing for marketing and quality control at the point of consumption.
Dr Robert Young, the research leader at Lancaster University and co-founder of Quantum Base said: “One could imagine our devices being used to identify a broad range of products, whether it is authentication of branded goods, SIM cards, important manufacturing components, the possibilities are endless.”
The use of inexpensive nanomaterials and their ability to be produced in large quantities has resulted in smaller, more power efficient devices that are future-proof to cloning.
Phil Speed co-founder of Quantum Base said “Q-IDs markedly increase the security gap between the good guys and the bad guys; this is truly a step change in authentication and authorisation. Lancaster and Quantum base have created devices that are the smallest, the most secure and the cheapest possible today and we are looking forward to talking to prospective markets and customers alike to bring this new, cutting edge, great British technology into mass market adoption.”
Sources of information on Nano-Scale