It is now possible for online hackers to control the beating of your heart.
In August, the Federal Drug Administration issued a recall of almost half a million implanted pacemakers because poor software security in their design made it possible for cybercriminals to remotely gain control of the devices. Under that dystopian nightmare scenario, hackers could run the pacemaker’s batteries down or alter the patient’s heartbeat.
That’s the ghoulish extreme internet hacking has reached, and the kind of horror story that makes people nervous every time they access the internet. These hackers are now reaching deep into our personal lives. In Germany, for instance, parents have been told to destroy a brand of children’s doll because a vulnerable Bluetooth connection makes it possible for hackers to listen and talk directly to their kids.
Now, however, there is hope for a cure to these paranoia-inducing stories.
Chinese engineers have used quantum physics to create what they say is completely unhackable internet communication. They’ve even used it to make a 100% secure video call across the globe.
So, can ultra-modern science make you feel safe online?
Unhackable Internet Communication Through Video Call
In September, China staged the world’s first quantum intercontinental video conference between laboratories in Beijing and Vienna, Austria. The 4,600-mile conversation was made possible by another world first, a space-to-ground quantum connection made of information carried on single photons of light.
This is heavy science, a type of encryption called quantum key distribution which had previously only been sent using ground-bound fibers, and even then over only relatively short distances.
Essentially, it means users at the ends of the call are constantly exchanging secret codes, or keys. These keys are carried as sub-atomic particles of light that are interconnected to such a degree that any attempt to disturb them breaks their chain and cancels the transmission. The message will only arrive if it is left untouched. Therefore, if you can keep speaking to each other by video call, you know your video call is completely safe.
It is a difficult concept to understand, but the underlying promise is profound–unhackable internet communication.
Living in an Unhackable World
It’s true that there’s a big difference between a one-off video conversation between two international science academies carried on an experimental satellite and an unhackable day-to-day conversation between two friends on Skype. We still have a ways to go, but that’s basically where this science is heading.
Think of the peace of mind you’d feel when and if that day arrives. All the hacking scandals we’ve endured over recent years–from the phone leaks of 2014 that broadcast intimate celebrity photos all over the world, to the release of computer viruses that shut down computers across the globe–must be taking a toll on our online confidence.
Until now, we’ve guarded our personal details with little more than easily hackable passwords, or we’ve taken things further by sticking tape over our webcams. We are, in effect, going about our online lives assuming a constant threat to our most personal information, even our identities.
If that all faded away, however, we could live online as freely as we do offline.
Intimate Video Conferencing
First in line to use this technology will be the financial, business, and medical institutions that depend on the exchange of personal information to function. Consumers already use the internet to do business with these companies–almost 80% of Americans already shop online and 60% prefer to do their banking over the internet–so how might unhackable internet communication affect our daily lives?
For one thing, video calling could become a far more common connection to the wider world. Telehealth, for instance, has been used by less than a quarter of Americans despite research suggesting almost three times as many would be willing to try it. While we’re used to filling out forms and accessing accounts online, it may be that we’re not as keen to verbally discuss personal information over the internet, especially deeply private matters we’d usually save for a one-on-one doctor’s appointment. Credit card details are valuable, too, but they don’t reveal much about ourselves.
Online banking, too, might change. Perhaps this quantum encryption technology could be used in combination with video-based facial recognition to make banking online or at video conferencing banking kiosks completely secure.
The introduction of a totally secure video call could give us more confidence to seek help, speak freely, and exchange delicate and confidential information. Almost every aspect of our lives already has an online mirror or avenue, and guaranteed security won’t create new apps or services. But it will give us a new state of mind, a new confidence that we can access what’s already available without feeling vulnerable.