Does quantum mechanics offer the best way to protect our most valuable data?

Criminals no longer need to swagger into banks like John Dillinger with their faces masked. Modern-day robbers are more likely to be armed with a degree in computer science than a tommy gun.

Last month, the consultancy Detica estimated the cost of cyber crime at £27bn – although that figure has been disputed by pressure group Straight Statistics – and the Government's new defence strategy explicitly mentions electronic attacks. Your money or your life could still be at risk using even the smartest of encryption technologies.

Conventional encryption, such as what might be used protecting your online-banking transactions or the country's national-security secrets, uses pure maths. A message containing secure government data or your bank details is transformed into "ciphertext", the encoded, garbled, version of the message, for transmission, and then converted back upon receipt. Interception will produce only gibberish – unless it's deciphered.

The only way to decipher the message is by using a "key" – another random string of letters or numbers. Like cracking the world's most complicated safe in a heist movie, to uncrack the code you'd have to try every variation of the 128 letters and numbers – which would take a while.

Those 128 bit–long keys are usually considered secure even against attacks that can check all the possible keys.

But last year, an encryption used by some 3G networks was cracked by Israeli researchers within hours, allowing them to listen to your phone calls, in theory. Orr Dunkelman, one of the researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science, says the networks are still considered safe because their technique "assumes that the adversary can obtain a lot of data, and that he can control the encryption keys to some extent". So our private conversations are safe for now.

But it has encouraged businesses and governments to look for an alternative. Since an encrypted message has to be intercepted before it can be decoded, there is a solution found by abandoning maths for physics – specifically, for quantum mechanics and the world of the very, very small. At the smallest scales, strange things happen. Waves behave like particles, and vice–versa. One consequence of this is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the notion that it is impossible to measure a system without disturbing it. With communications that take full advantage of this, any disturbance created by cyber-criminals' eavesdropping is detectable and transmission can be cut off.

"Security comes from knowing you have been compromised, rather than the absolute integrity of the 'safe'," says Norman Apsley, vice–president for business and innovation at the Institute of Physics. "Quantum cryptography has been a goal for some time, but many were sceptical that it would ever become a reality." A forthcoming report by the institute will show how far the science has come.

Andrew Shields, of Toshiba Research Europe, says: "The technique is based on sending secret digital keys across optical fibres using encoded single photons – particles of light – and so is technically very challenging."

Toshiba and the National Physical Laboratory are working towards commercialisation, with products expected to fetch tens of thousands of pounds – the cost of a high-end firewall. "Ultimately, quantum cryptography could find widespread use in telecom networks," Shields says. "In the near-term, it is most likely to find application in settings where information security is a high priority." Settings such as security and defence.

This is good news for us, and bad news for Dillingers old and new. The laws of the universe and a little human ingenuity can foil the hardest and smartest of criminals.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
ebooksNow available in paperback
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Not quite what they were expecting

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum