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Protons and privacy

Technology | The Pentagon is funding research to build an experimental secure computer network using quantum encryption

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

Some prominent researchers are developing a new computer security system that would automatically sense any attempt at eavesdropping. Known as quantum encryption, it uses subatomic particles to protect important files.

The idea is to take advantage of quantum mechanics to deter hackers. Physicists theorize that protons can simultaneously exist in multiple states until something interacts with them, which means that even observation can change them. Any attempted intrusion on a file protected by quantum encryption, therefore, could be instantly detected.

The Pentagon has funded researchers at Harvard University, Boston University, and BBN Technologies (an R&D firm that helped build the early internet) to build an experimental secure network using quantum encryption. Computers at the three sites are linked to one another and interact via quantum keys.

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The network uses a laser to separate protons and then feeds them to a device called a modulator, which encodes data by spacing the particles' transmission along a fiber-optic cable to the recipient. Another device on the receiving end verifies whether the transmission was monitored; if not, the resulting code can be used to encode and decode ordinary e-mail, web pages, and other data.

The challenge will be making quantum encryption inexpensive enough for everyday use. Computer processors must become far faster before the technology can be deployed in any but the most sensitive applications.

Aggressive worms

Windows users beware: The threat of viruses and worms grew worse this year. Symantec, the maker of Norton Anti-Virus, reported finding over four times the number of these malicious programs during the first six months of this year as it did during the same period in 2003.

The company reported that computer crooks are becoming faster at developing new schemes. In an average of about six days from the announcement of a new software bug, someone will release a program that exploits it.

Viruses famously spread by e-mail, but Symantec pointed out peer-to-peer services, chat relays, and network file sharing as hotbeds of malicious code. It also reported that e-commerce scams quadrupled, as spyware and forged e-mail "fishing" cons became more common.

These attacks are also becoming a common business nuisance, according to a research paper issued by the Yankee Group, a market research firm. It found that worms and viruses disrupted 80 percent of internet-connected companies during 2003.

Bits & Megabytes

Cingular announced a new application to help blind people use mobile phones. The "Talks" software, which runs on a Nokia phone, reads options to the user and picks up responses via voice recognition. It can handle text messages and e-mail, as well as caller ID, battery warnings, and contact lists.

PayPal plans to start fining customers up to $500 for using the service to trade in gambling, pornography, and illegal prescription drugs. The payment site already bans such activities, which it considers a high risk for fraud, but now threatens more biting measures-including legal action-to drive away such "merchants" and recover costs. The eBay-owned company will still handle transactions for legal pharmacies, if they are certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Microsoft now sells a fingerprint recognition program for Windows XP, which may help eliminate screen names and passwords, using a tap of the finger on a biometric reader instead. Right now, however, the Microsoft Fingerprint Reader is sold essentially as a timesaver-and the developers warn not to use it on corporate networks, financial records, or other sensitive data.

The U.S. high-tech job market continues to struggle, even three years after the recession officially ended, researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago concluded. The information-technology industry shrank by about 19 percent overall, losing over 400,000 jobs between March 2001 (when the recession began) and April of this year.

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