The next generation of digital and anti-counterfeit security

Doctoral student wins award and publishes research envisioning practical devices for making the world of technology hack-free

As our world becomes evermore digitized, whether it’s the near future technology within the internet of things or driverless cars, security becomes central – moving from the threat of monetary or identity theft to one of safety. Which is why the research of Jonathan Roberts, PhD student at Lancaster University, is generating such interest from business. His research ‘Nano-Identification: Fingerprints of the Future’, proposing the use of quantum technology to uniquely identify any product made him the winner of the 2015 UK ICT (Information and Computer Technology) Pioneers – earning him £3,000 in the process. 

The follow-up paper just published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, ‘Using Quantum Confinement to Uniquely Identify Devices’, in which Roberts is the lead author, focuses on the electronic application of the quantum technology work, ‘basically anything that has a circuit architecture in it,’ says Roberts, ‘whether that is simple things like phones, tablets and computers or new technology like intelligent cars, wearables and smart medical patches. It could be embedded in anything that has electronic architecture there.’ An example that makes people stop and think says Roberts, ‘is intelligent cars communicating with servers, if someone hacked that server by pretending that they were legitimate when they were not, that could cause serious problems.’

Existing security systems are based around passwords, which rely on secrecy, or anti-counterfeit tag, which rely on difficulty to forge. However, both of these systems are actually not amazingly secure. This system uses a property normally considered undesirable – a lack of homogeneity in the fabrication of nano-structures. These atomically unique nano-structures have a unique signature, and incorporating this into the manufacturing of micro-chips will be a significant leap in security.

The PhD project came out of an area Roberts was working in – Practical Quantum Security solutions. Roberts is a PhD student at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s NowNano Centre for Doctoral Training (the remit for the NowNano Centre is being expanded to include the Science and Applications of Graphene and Related Nanomaterials). 

Smaller and cheaper, faster and more powerful

Roberts’ original choice of course area was tailored for anything that might use quantum mechanics for security. Unlike conventional encryption, quantum communication uses the laws of quantum mechanics to ensure 100 percent security. ‘The UK ICT competition was about the authentication side of things and that basically came from a conversation about how these nano-constructions that we can make are always completely different on the nanoscale.  We said if you can use those differences to make a practical unique device then you basically have a perfect example of an authentication system, which is smaller and cheaper than anything else and can be mass-produced – whilst being more secure because you can’t clone structures on that level.’ The other advantage of quantum mechanics explains Roberts is that such devices, ‘will work faster and with lower power because they are so small.’ Such nano-constructions on a chip would make electronic devices using them secure. They’re currently working on making the implementation of these devices into a circuit a little easier.   

One of the most difficult parts of the presentation for the ICT competition explains Roberts was the second stage, where the successful candidates had to ‘make a 3 minute video explaining your research and explaining what you had done. Making a nice video if you haven’t done any video editing before isn’t exactly straightforward!’ Then they had to do media training, addressing how to talk, body language, all skills useful in science and business presentations – it’s easy to forget that brilliant ideas are not always obvious to the people you need to persuade. 

On the day of the competition Roberts and the others, presented to 8 judges throughout the day from BT, Facebook, HP, Samsung, Dstl, BSC and EPSRC. Each category winner then had 10-15 minutes to go away and ‘prepare a Dragon’s Den-style pitch in our heads,’ says Roberts. ‘Then I had to go back on the stage about 10 minutes later where I pitched for 3 minutes. I won that, which made me the overall winner of the competition.’ 

The other aspect Roberts and fellow researchers are working on, ‘is an optical variant. This one would use 2D materials like graphene. You always see graphene nice and pristine in the pictures – but when you produce it, really it’s not atomically uniform. If you use specific materials, you can make them emit light. So what we want to do is essentially spray these 2D materials onto anything and be able to look at it and say that is unique to that item from the light it emits. This could be used in the supply chain. For me the most interesting thing to do would be to be able to place it on drugs, as drugs are really easy to counterfeit and there’s not anything you can place on the actual drug that says this is real or this is fake. The counterfeit drug trade is a massive market. It’s a major health threat.’