Researchers showcase all-optical encryption tech to keep data hidden and safe

‘If you can’t detect it, you can’t steal it,’ says Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Dan Sadot; tech will be presented at the Cybertech conference in Tel Aviv

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative. A payments system hacker. (Welcomia; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative. A payments system hacker. (Welcomia; iStock by Getty Images)

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are set to unveil what they say is a first all-optical “stealth” encryption technology that will be significantly more secure and private for transmission of highly sensitive financial, medical or social media-related information.

The technology will be presented at the Cybertech Global Tel Aviv conference held on January 28-30, 2020 in Tel Aviv.

Today, information that is transmitted on the internet is encrypted to protect the privacy and safety of the data by using digital techniques. The data is broken up into “bits” which are then encrypted by digital algorithms — the most commonly used today is the RSA algorithm — which turn the data into meaningless signals that are transmitted over electro-magnetic or radio waves or over fiber optic cables — where light waves are used to transmit the data. The information is then decoded and reconstructed into the original message at destination.

However, high-powered computers and government agencies like the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other bodies have the ability to decode and access these messages by breaking the encryption codes, explained Prof. Dan Sadot, the chairman of the Cathedra for Electro-optics at BGU who heads the team that has developed what the university says is “groundbreaking technology.”

Prof. Dan Sadot, the chairman of the Cathedra for Electro-optics at Ben-Gurion University. (Courtesy)

Not only that. Hackers who want to access data can today easily detect bits that are being transferred on the network and record them — even without understanding the information in real time — and then leisurely work offline on decoding the information at a later stage. And also, in future, the advent of quantum computers will see the creation of strong and fast machines that will have the ability to break all of the existing encryption codes, Sadot told the Times of Israel in a phone interview. Thus, a “different” data security paradigm must be found.

What the Ben-Gurion University researchers have come up with now is an “end-to-end solution providing encryption, transmission, decryption, and detection optically instead of digitally,” Sadot said.

Using standard optical equipment, the research team has managed to make the data transmission undetectable and “stealthy” and has overcome the drawbacks of the digital encryption, the university said in a statement on Wednesday.

The researchers do this by taking the information — either already encrypted or not — and spreading the data over a number of light waves in the fiber optic cables — which are the most common method today used for transmitting data, Sadot said.

“We spread the information not only on a single color of light,” in the optical spectrum bandwidth — as is done when transmitting bits digitally on fiber optic networks — “but over many colors,” he said.

The method spreads the transmission across many colors in the optical spectrum bandwidth (1,000x wider than digital) and intentionally creates multiple weaker data streams that thus elude detection, because people do not realize that the bits are being transmitted. In addition, every transmission, electronic, digital, or fiber has a certain amount of network “noise.” The researchers showed that the weaker encrypted data can be transmitted under a stronger inherent noise level, concealing the information even further.

To add an extra level of security the researchers also use a commercially available so called “phase mask,” which changes the phase of each wavelength (color). This process also appears as noise, but destroys the “coherence” or ability to recompile the data without the correct encryption key. The optical phase mask also cannot be recorded and worked on offline, said Sadot.

Once the data reaches destination, the signals are decoded via an encryption key that is given to both the sender and the receiver of the message.

“Basically, the innovative breakthrough is that if you can’t detect it, you can’t steal it,” Sadot said. “Because an eavesdropper can neither read the data or even detect the existence of the transmitted signal, our optical stealth transmission provides the highest level of privacy and security for sensitive data applications.”

The new, patented method invented by Sadot and his team, can be “highly useful” for multiple applications, such as high-speed communication, sensitive transmission of financial, medical or social media-related information, without the risk of hackers getting their hands onto the information, said Zafrir Levy, Senior Vice President, Exact Sciences & Engineering, BGN Technologies, the technology transfer arm of the university.

BGN is now seeking an industry partner to implement and commercialize the technology, he said.

Clients of the technology could be companies that make transmitters or receivers, said Sadot, or network infrastructure vendors, or users of cloud systems and data centers, like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

The technology is an extension of the digital optical encryption method originally invented by Sadot and his team, in collaboration with Prof. Zalevsky of Bar Ilan University.

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