Saudi Arabia’s KAUST in global chip-development effort to thwart hackers

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People work on computers on January 22, 2019 in Lille, during the 11th International Cybersecurity Forum. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 27 May 2020

Saudi Arabia’s KAUST in global chip-development effort to thwart hackers

  • Quantum computers are likely to be able to crack existing communication methods in the near future
  • KAUST contributing to designing of computer chip capable of foiling security threats from quantum computers

DUBAI: Scientists from one of Saudi Arabia’s most prestigious academic institutions are part of an international chip-designing team that is spearheading efforts to put hackers out of business.

The goal of the KAUST team is to design an optical computer chip that can withstand security threats from quantum computers, which many believe will be able to crack existing communication methods in the near future.

The optical chips enable information to be sent from one user to another via a one-time, unhackable mode of communication in “perfect secrecy.”

This allows confidential data to be protected more securely than ever before on public classical communication channels.

The scientists’ proposed system uses silicon chips containing complex structures that are irreversibly changed to send information in a one-time key that can neither be recreated nor intercepted by an attacker.

The results, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, open a new route toward implementing “perfect secrecy” cryptography on a global scale whose costs are economical too.

“This new technique is absolutely unbreakable, as we rigorously demonstrated in our article,” said Andrea di Falco, a professor with the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews and first author of the study.

“It can be used to protect the confidentiality of communications exchanged by users separated by any distance, at an ultrafast speed close to the light limit and in inexpensive and electronic compatible optical chips.”




A person delivers a computer payload while working on a laptop on January 22, 2019 in Lille, during the 11th International Cybersecurity Forum. (AFP/File Photo)

Although not used yet, the scientists have filed a patent besides the paper in “Nature Communications.”

They are now in discussion with companies in the UK and US, in addition to being in contact with a company in Saudi Arabia.

“It could help governments as well,” said Dr. Andrea Fratalocchi, associate professor of electrical engineering at KAUST and co-author of the research paper.

“This technology, if implemented on a large scale, can put hackers out of business because it will create an impenetrable layer that no one can break.”

With the right funding, prototypes can be deployed with high technological readiness within a couple of years.




People work on computers on January 22, 2019 in Lille, during the 11th International Cybersecurity Forum. (AFP/File Photo)

Current standard cryptographic techniques allow information to be sent quickly, but chances are they will be hacked by future computers and quantum algorithms.

Redha Al-Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Saudi Ph.D. student at KAUST, said the drive to produce smaller and more efficient chips to enable powerful computing in small devices has led to the development of quantum computers.

"Today, tech giants possess the resources and talent to build quantum computers and use them to perform tasks (earlier) believed to be impossible even with the world's most powerful machines," he told Arab News.

"Some of these tasks involving breaking today's most powerful encryption codes used by everyone daily to keep their information safe and their resources secure."




In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, a worker checks chip component circuits at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

The research team said that their new method for encrypting data is unbreakable and uses existing communication networks, plus takes up less network space than traditional encrypted communications do.

The chip can be used by private customers who perform bank transactions, for instance, or in the military field, among others, which uses confidential information.

“It’s based on integrated chips used on the sender and receiver,” Fratalocchi said.

FASTFACT

Optical Chips

Promise many advantages over their electronic counterparts, including reduced power consumption and processing speedups.

“The chips allow the exchange, on a public channel, of a key between the two people. The key is random; it’s different every time and no one can infer it from the communication exchanged between the two.”

With this key, users can encode information in a way that no other user can decode. The security of this scheme is of the type “perfect secrecy,” a security that can be mathematically proven to never be broken — not by any user nor by technological advance.

Fratalocchi said that three models of security are commonly used currently, adding that it would become possible to decrypt encrypted messages using a protocol called “mathematical security” in a few years.

“This type of security is the one used in many symmetric key cryptographic protocols, such as the one used by the United States to encrypt confidential information,” he said.




In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, smartphone chip component circuits are handled by a worker at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

“Another security protocol is defined as ‘probable security,’ which is employed in many public key cryptographies, such as in bank transactions.

“All these paradigms are not based on unconditional proofs and are vulnerable to technological development.

“No one can anticipate the technology of tomorrow. An attacker can just save the data of today and wait until the right technology is available to decrypt the information.”

Fratalocchi’s research belongs to the third category, ”perfect secrecy,” which is the sturdiest of them all.

Developed by Frank Miller in 1882, during the age of telegraphy, and patented in 1919 by Gilbert Vernam, it is called the one-time pad (OTP) or the Vernam cipher.




In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, smartphone chip component circuits are handled by a worker at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

At the time, Vernam claimed it was unbreakable but could not prove it mathematically.

The proof became available in the late 1940s.

“What we did is to create a physical implementation of the Vernam cipher and experimentally prove it,” Fratalocchi told Arab News.

“With the advent of more powerful and quantum computers, all current encryptions will be broken in very short time, exposing the privacy of our present and, more importantly, past communications.”

Fratalocchi said that an attacker might store an encrypted message sent today and wait for the right technology to become available to decipher the communication.

“Implementing massive and affordable resources of global security is a worldwide problem that this research has the potential to solve for everyone, and everywhere,” he said.

The new method uses the classical laws of physics — the second law of thermodynamics in particular — to protect the messages.




Dr. Andrea Fratalocchi, associate professor of electrical engineering at KAUST and co-author of the research paper. (Supplied)

Keys generated by the chip, which unlock each message, are never stored nor communicated with the message, nor can they ever be recreated, even by the users themselves. This adds an extra level of security.

“A novel form of security must be made available for the future, when current technologies becomes obsolete, making everyone's information vulnerable,” Al-Ibrahim told Arab News.

“This research introduces a new form of security, which depends on a random, unpredictable physical structure that is made uniquely for each individual.”

Fratalocchi said Saudi Arabia is an interesting country for researchers of his ilk because its informatic infrastructure is quite advanced.

“Here, you can perform almost any task online or from any ATM, ranging from any type of government service to paying fines,” he said.

“In Europe, cyber development in the government sector is not as advanced. Saudi Arabia would be an excellent user of this perfect secrecy system for securing any type of communication.”




In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, smartphone chip component circuits are handled by a worker at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

The team is currently working on developing commercial applications of the patented technology, a fully functional demo and user-friendly software for the system.

“We are confident of our results,” Fratalocchi said.

“The work took a very long time. I started the idea of using a complex system for communicating security in my post-doctoral research, which was funded from an award that I won from the Enrico Fermi Center for Study and Research in Rome.”

When he moved to KAUST in 2011, Fratalocchi worked on it with Valerio Mazzone, his Ph.D. student, and their collaborators in the UK and the US. It took about five years, with trial and error, to discover the correct system.

“The main difficulty was to find a system that would scale up and could be used on users separated by arbitrary distances,” Fratalocchi said.

“The most important experiment happened around three years ago, when we found the correct configuration in a scalable system that wasn’t too expensive.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Aluizio Cruz, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Unconventional Processes of Sciences (CUP Sciences) in California and co-author of the Nature Communications report, said: “This system is the practical solution the cybersecurity sector has been waiting for since the perfect secrecy theoretical proof” by Vernam.

Cruz added: “It will be a key candidate to solving global cybersecurity threats, from private to national security, all the way to smart energy grids.”

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@CalineMalek


Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

Photo/Supplied
Updated 12 July 2020

Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

  • Due to pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine

RIYADH: Chinese video platform TikTok is under fire once again, as rumors of the app being a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on users resurface online.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a video-sharing site similar to the now-defunct Vine, where users share short clips of themselves which can be altered using AI technology.
Lip-syncing along with a track, using filters, and adding special effects give users the chance to create short clips that can be shared and downloaded in several social media platforms.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users downloaded TikTok to watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine. The app has also gained significant popularity in the Middle East with influencers such as Saudi model Roz, UAE-based content creators Khalid and Salama, and Saudi top TikToker iimeeto, who recently celebrated reaching four million followers on the platform.
Rania Mohammed, a fourth year medical student at Dar AlUloom University in Riyadh, said that TikTok was “the only thing keeping her sane” as she struggled with the pressures of school and quarantine.
“As a med school student, my attention span and free time are both severely limited,” she told Arab News. “Taking a 15 minute break to watch silly TikToks has helped me keep motivated. The specific brand of humor on that app is the fastest way to make me laugh.”
Mai Alhumood, a government employee, said that she downloaded the app while she was bored and became “quickly addicted” to the platform’s fun short videos.
“People are so creative on TikTok, and the challenges that keep going viral are so interesting,” she told Arab News.
However, the app has long-suffered from accusations of spying and gathering users’ private information on behalf of the Chinese government, leading to both temporary and permanent bans in countries around the world.
Recently, it was reported that Amazon requested that employees remove the app from their smartphones in an email over “security risks.” The company later retracted its directive.
Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber believed that concerns over the security of TikTok’s collected data stemmed from the app’s country of origin and its rules and regulations.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a ‘threat to the sovereignty and security of the country’ following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.

• Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding ‘illegal content’ such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.

• Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. He said that banning the app would be ‘punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.’

“TikTok collects data in a very similar way to US applications,” he told Arab News. “However the main concern is that the US has regulations and compliance that must be met when collecting customer data, such as GDPR data privacy regulation. In the case of TikTok, we don’t know as much about how the data is being used or stored because we don’t know their regulations.”
Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a “threat to the sovereignty and security of the country” following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.
Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding “illegal content” such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.
Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. In an interview with Gray Television, Trump said that banning the app would be “punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.”
“Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia has yet to announce a ban of any kind of TikTok, local users and followers are trying to practice caution while using the app anyway.
Alhumood considered making videos on the platform, but dismissed the idea and only uses it to follow other people’s videos.
“I have ideas for it, sure, but I’d rather not take the risk. I don’t even have a username or a registered account, and that’s one of the better things about TikTok. I only have the app, but I can still watch all the videos without giving them my private information.”
Mohammed also said that she had no interest in creating videos herself, though she did have a registered account in order to comment on videos and keep track of her favorites.
However Al-Jaber said that, in his opinion, registering an account on TikTok did not necessarily pose more of a risk than using other social media.
“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.