Media Release: Scotland-based researchers’ breakthrough set to scupper online fraudsters worldwide

• Unprecedented security will protect consumers and industry around the globe
• £50billion online UK retail sector set to benefit

USING quantum physics and tiny light particles to foil hackers and online criminals may sound like the stuff of Bond movies and sci-fi thrillers, but scientists have now successfully demonstrated how to protect finance, retail and other sectors from crippling e-crime.

Physicists at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh, UK) and University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, UK) have worked with tiny particles of light to create a new way of verifying electronic messages and transactions as authentic, helping address the huge cost of eCrime (estimated at £205.4million in 2011/12 for the UK retail sector alone) and avoiding potentially catastrophic fraud, online hacking and theft of digital data.

Says a spokesperson: “The work, published today (Tuesday 30 October) with free open access in the journal Nature Communications, shows how the fundamental particles of light, known as photons, can be used to verify security and authenticity of any transaction or communication with a ‘digital signature’.

“Currently, ‘digital signatures’ underpin internet shopping, electronic banking, electronic voting and many software updates. Whenever the padlock symbol is displayed in a web browser, digital signatures are in use.

“However, with traditional online security, these signatures are based on mathematical formulae – and can be cracked, leading to fraud and other online security breaches. Quantum digital signatures use a different approach which ensures authenticity and origin of messages.”

Professor Gerald Buller, at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Computer virus attacks have shown that ‘signatures’ or specific codes can be hijacked, potentially causing chaos with systems being crippled, accounts hacked, and industry and consumers losing millions of pounds.

“Our new approach, using quantum mechanics rather than just maths to create signatures for multiple recipients (or customers), and could make hacking, fraud and theft near-impossible.”

Begins a spokesperson: “Recent estimates of the value of 2011 online UK retail sales are at minimum £25billion (according to the Office of National Statistics) and could be as high as £50.34billion (Centre for Retail Research, 2011).

“E-crime is estimated to be the biggest emerging threat to the retail sector as the rapid growth in e-commerce in the UK sees new ways of shopping being accompanied by new types of crime, according a recent report from the British Retail Consortium.”

Launching this report in August, BRC director general, Stephen Robertson, said: “The rapid growth of e-commerce in the UK shows it offers great benefits for customers but also new opportunities for criminals…. resources must be directed to e-crime in line with the emerging threat.

“This will encourage retailers to report more offences and allow the police to better identify and combat new threats.”

Quantum-based secure signatures mean that an ‘eavesdropper’ – a malevolent third party listening in – cannot fake a signed message which is being sent to multiple recipients.

• The sender writes the signature with encoded light particles and sends it to the receiver

• The receiver cannot yet read the signature. However, it can be sure it received an authentic signature

• To confirm a message is authentic and to also read it, the receiver has to receive both the message (the ‘signature’) plus additional information required to decipher it

• The multiple receivers confirm that they have received identical signatures – only then does the sender provide the additional information required to read the signature

• This process takes place without the user (e.g. a shopper) being required to do anything differently to current security methods

The research was funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).


For further information and interview please contact Esther Black: / 0131 556 0770 / 07584 474 232.

Web references

• Nature Communications:

• Heriot-Watt University – Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences

• University of Strathclyde – Department of Physics:

Biographies of lead academics

Professor Gerald S. Buller, Heriot-Watt University

Prof Buller graduated with a BSc (Hons) Natural Philosophy from the University of Glasgow in 1986 and a PhD in Physics from Heriot–Watt University in 1989.

He is the inaugural head of the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences at Heriot-Watt and has co-authored over 100 scientific papers. Professor Buller led the team that demonstrated the first ultrafast (Gigahertz) quantum cryptography scheme in 2004. He founded Livingston-based Helia Photonics Ltd in 2002, where he remains a company director.

He is a member of the Optical Society of America, a Chartered Physicist, Fellow of the UK Institute of Physics, member of the IoP’s Science Board and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Dr Erika Andersson, Heriot-Watt University

Dr Erika Andersson graduated with an MSc in Physics from Abo Akademi University in Finland in 1996 and with a PhD, also in Physics, from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2000.

She has worked as an EU Marie Curie Research Fellow and a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Since 2007, she has been a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University.

She has co-authored more than 50 papers and conference proceedings. Erika is a founder member of QuiSco, an interdisciplinary network of researchers based in Scotland who are interested in quantum information.

Dr John Jeffers, University of Strathclyde

John Jeffers studied for his BSc in Physics (1987) at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his PhD in Theoretical Physics (1993) at the University of Essex, in collaboration with the Royal Signals Radar Establishment in Malvern, on travelling-wave quantum optics.

He came to Strathclyde in 1992 to undertake a post-doctoral position to work on the quantum theory of dielectrics, and also worked on quantum imaging.

John’s past research has been in quantum optics (specifically on the quantum theory of dielectrics, quantum optical amplification and attenuation) and in quantum retrodiction, which uses quantum theory backwards in time to assess the likelihood of things having happened.

At present John works mainly in two areas: Postselection and Measurement-driven evolution. Other topics include spatial effects in quantum and classical optics, atom optics and open systems.

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