DEC 19, 2018 2:57 PM PST

Better Security Through Biological Encryption

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

It seems like there’s always another story about a hacked website, data breach or computer virus. Securing information is a difficult prospect, at a time when there is an endless amount of sensitive data online. Engineers have now developed a method for encryption that is unclonable and not susceptible to reverse-engineering, something that will become a concern as computers get more complex and powerful. The work has been reported in Advanced Theory & Simulations.

Image credit: Modified from Pexels

"Currently, encryption is done with mathematical algorithms that are called one-way functions. These are easy to create in one direction but very difficult to do in the opposite direction," explained Saptarshi Das, assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics, Penn State.

For example, if a given number is huge, reverse-engineering two numbers that produce it through multiplication would be time-consuming and require a lot of computational effort. In the near future, however, that effort will become easy by today's standards.

"However, now that computers are becoming more powerful and quantum computing is on the horizon, using encryption that relies on its effectiveness because it is monumentally time-consuming to decrypt won't fly anymore," added Das.

Totally random encryption keys cannot be reverse-engineered and are unclonable since there’s no formula or pattern to them. Unless some physical process is used, random number generators are not truly random; they rely on an algorithm to create pseudo-random numbers.

"We need to go back to nature and identify real random things," said Das. "Because there is no mathematical basis for many biological processes, no computer can unravel them."

For this work, the researchers assessed a type of human immune cell - a T cell. Graduate students Akhil Dodda and Akshay Wali, and postdoctoral fellow Yang Wu captured images of a two-dimensional array of T cells. The images were then pixelated, and the researchers assigned T cell pixels a “one” and empty spaces “zeros.”

"When we started there were a few papers out using nanomaterials," said Dodda. "However, they weather (nanomaterials) out of the material and are stationary."

Live cells are different; they move, so they can be photographed over and over, generating new encryption keys every time.

"We need a lot of keys because the population of the world is 7 billion," noted Das. "Each person will generate a megabyte of data every second by 2020."

Encryption keys will be required for everything from data on a personal computer to vast repositories kept by businesses or medical institutions, for example. It would also be easy to replace encryption keys with new ones if there was a problem.

"It is very difficult to reverse-engineer these systems," said Dodda. "Not being able to reverse-engineer these keys is an area of strength."

The team is now utilizing 2,000 T cells to make one encryption key. The noted that even if someone knew the type of cell that was used to make the key as well as its physical properties, and had the generation mechanism including the key generation rate and sampling instance, it would still not be possible for them to break into the system. 

"We need something secure, and biological species-encrypted security systems will keep our data safe and secure everywhere and anytime," said Wali.

Quantum computing is on the horizon. Learn more about it from the video.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Penn State, Advanced Theory & Simulations

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
MAR 15, 2020
MAR 15, 2020
A Second Person Has Been Cured of HIV
New research has suggested that after long-term follow-up, HIV is no longer detectable in a patient that was previously ...
MAR 17, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAR 17, 2020
Targeting RNA With CRISPR
Researchers screened thousands of target molecules to find the most effective targets, and have made their data openly a ...
APR 02, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
APR 02, 2020
How Particle Physicists can Lend a Hand to the Search for SARS-CoV-02 Cure, Explained
With vaccines at least one year away and no proven treatment for infection, the world has witnessed the loss of  20 ...
APR 02, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
APR 02, 2020
Cooling Injured Brain Cells Can Aid Recovery
According to the CDC, in 2014 there were around 2.87 million incidences of TBI-related ER visits.
APR 20, 2020
APR 20, 2020
Making Sense of the T Cell Response Spectrum
T cells go through a sort of “training” process throughout life, and scientists recently discovered that the ...
MAY 27, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
MAY 27, 2020
A Deeper Understanding of How Some Bacterial Toxins Interact With Cells
The surfaces of cells are decorated with receptors, and the interactions between receptors and their binding partners ar ...
Loading Comments...