Protecting products, data, and the internet via crypto-technologies

Aug. 31, 2018
by Mark Ollig

“In the coming years, hackers will get smarter, and so will we,” a PhD student said during the IBM Research Think 2018 conference in Las Vegas, NV.

IBM Research consists of 3,000 scientists working in 12 laboratories on six continents.

Andrea Kind is a computer scientist from IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland.

His presentation began by pointing out much of our merchandise, such as shirts, headphones, shoes, and the items we use for our health and safety, are being copied or counterfeited.

He called this “product piracy.”

I was surprised to learn the total value of counterfeited goods in 2015 was $1.8 trillion.

Kind cites how consumers don’t even know for sure if the replaced brakes on their cars are genuine or counterfeit.

In some areas of the world, 40 percent of parts manufactured in the automotive aftermarket are counterfeit.

He also explained how many counterfeit medicinal drugs are kept in unsanitary storage, or when their dates have expired, are recycled and sold as new.

Also, internet commerce has made it much easier to sell counterfeit products.

Kind spoke of a physical cryptographic anchor, or crypto-anchor, which is a new technology that can be used to ensure the authenticity of materials, safeguard personal data, and even verify our foods’ wholesomeness.

The crypto-anchor would communicate with a “prominence database,” which would record everything related to a product as it is shipped across a country or around the world.

He mentioned a technology called “blockchain,” which can be used to build a trusted version of a prominence database system.

IBM currently applies blockchain technology to their in-house documentation, but its use is limited.

Kind said crypto-anchors and blockchain technology will be used to link the entries within provenance databases to their defined business processes, and with the physical objects out in the real world.

He said within the next five years, crypto-anchors will cut in half the number of counterfeit goods that are linked to health and safety issues.

Provenance databases would keep track of a product’s lifetime information, from start to finish; along with providing authentication.

Kind talked about how today’s coding and programming has to do with the digital world; the code executes something in digital and returns something in digital.

He pointed out, non-digital items, such as paper documents, clothing, shoes, and food, exist in the real world.

Kind then presented one example of a crypto-anchor. Its programming code consisted of colored ink dots placed on micro pellets embedded inside a paper document.

The crypto-anchor’s scannable programming code authenticates the document’s originality, and where it has traveled.

A crypto-anchor is tinier than a grain of salt and can be thought of as the world’s smallest computer. Each contains a processor, memory, storage, and a communication module.

One crypto-anchor can contain several hundred thousand transistors, and will cost less than 10 cents to manufacture.

Crypto-anchors will monitor, analyze, and report any variations of the preset parameters of the item they are safeguarding.

IBM scientists say crypto-anchors can be combined with an optical sensor and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm for quickly scanning, identifying, and tracking products and materials.

Look for the Internet of Things (IoT) to use authenticating crypto-anchors embedded in everything from shoes, clothing, paper products, electronics, and wearables; to furniture, machinery, medicinal supplies, automotive parts, and more.

From a product’s point of origin, to when it is in the hands of the consumer, crypto-anchors will ensure authenticity.

Although in the prototype stage of development, IBM hopes the first crypto-anchors will be available to clients in 2019.

Cecilia Boschhini is a PhD student in privacy and lattice cryptography, and is a predoctoral researcher for IBM.

She explained cryptography as “the science, or even the art of designing protocols to protect your data.”

When we send and receive data over the internet, we are using what are called cryptographic schemes, such as when using a credit card at an online store.

Credit card information is encrypted using complicated mathematical algorithms to keep our personal data secure.

Boschhini states, future lattice-based security cryptography algorithms would be virtually unhackable using today’s most powerful computers.

What about using a quantum computer?

Let’s say you brought back from the future a quantum computer containing thousands of processing quantum bits (qubits) and, using Shor’s Algorithm – yes, you could easily solve (decrypt) today’s most stringent security encryption methods and essentially “hack the planet” for real.

Not to worry just yet, folks, as it will be decades before we see a fully-operational quantum computer working with thousands of qubits.

I do know, IBM is in the testing phase with a quantum computer using 50 qubits – so stay tuned.

Boschhini believes, by encoding lattice cryptography throughout the internet, its data will be virtually impossible – even for a future quantum computer – to override or hack.

She explained IBM is preparing themselves, their partners, and us for a full upgrade to secure internet infrastructures by creating advanced crypto-encryption protocols that are secure and resistant to cyber-attacks.

IBM will be working on this and other technologies with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

In the coming years, hackers will get smarter, and so will we, Boschhini added.

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