Researchers fighting identity theft and credit card fraud are bringing out the heavy guns.

In a report issued this week, a team of scientists from the Netherlands is proposing a security system for credit cards and passports that would leverage the power of quantum physics. Dubbed quantum-secure authentication (QSA), the technology uses a strip of nanoparticles on the card that would be virtually impossible to hack.

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It gets a little complicated, but here goes: Credit cards that use magnetic strips — or even embedded chips — are relatively easy to exploit for fraudulent purposes. So long as a hacker can get to the information stored within the card, it can be copied or emulated. The question-and-answer authentication process used in existing systems is fundamentally vulnerable.

With the quantum security system, the card’s nanoparticle strip would be zapped with a laser in such a way as to create a unique pattern that’s impossible to crack. That’s because the system harnesses the qualities of light in the quantum state, in which photons can exist in multiple places at the same time. The event that created the pattern could never be duplicated or observed.

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“It would be like dropping 10 bowling balls onto the ground and creating 200 separate impacts,” said lead author Pepijn Pinkse of the University of Twente, in the accompanying report. “It’s impossible to know precisely what information was sent (what pattern was created on the floor) just by collecting the 10 bowling balls.” (The illustration above is Pinske’s own illustration of a laser beam hitting the physical key of QSA random-scattering medium.)

To get more specific would require several Ph.D.s in theoretical physics, or some powerful alkaloids. But the upshot is that the QSA system could be implemented relatively quickly using existing technologies, according to the research team.

Credit: Pepijn W.H. Pinkse