Snake-Oil Research in Nature
Snake-oil isn’t only in commercial products. Here’s a piece of research published (behind a paywall) in Nature that’s just full of it.
The article suggests using chaos in an electro-optical system to generate a pseudo-random light sequence, which is then added to the message to protect it from interception. Now, the idea of using chaos to build encryption systems has been tried many times in the cryptographic community, and has always failed. But the authors of the Nature article show no signs of familiarity with prior cryptographic work.
The published system has the obvious problem that it does not include any form of message authentication, so it will be trivial to send spoofed messages or tamper with messages while they are in transit.
But a closer examination of the paper’s figures suggests a far more fundamental problem. There’s no key. Anyone with a valid receiver can decode the ciphertext. No key equals no security, and what you have left is a totally broken system.
I e-mailed Claudio R. Mirasso, the corresponding author, about the lack of any key, and got this reply: “To extract the message from the chaotic carrier you need to replicate the carrier itself. This can only be done by a laser that matches the emitter characteristics within, let’s say, within 2-5%. Semiconductor lasers with such similarity have to be carefully selected from the same wafer. Even though you have to test them because they can still be too different and do not synchronize. We talk abut a hardware key. Also the operating conditions (current, feedback length and coupling strength) are part of the key.”
Let me translate that. He’s saying that there is a hardware key baked into the system at fabrication. (It comes from manufacturing deviations in the lasers.) There’s no way to change the key in the field. There’s no way to recover security if any of the transmitters/receivers are lost or stolen. And they don’t know how hard it would be for an attacker to build a compatible receiver, or even a tunable receiver that could listen to a variety of encodings.
This paper would never get past peer review in any competent cryptography journal or conference. I’m surprised it was accepted in Nature, a fiercely competitive journal. I don’t know why Nature is taking articles on topics that are outside its usual competence, but it looks to me like Nature got burnt here by a lack of expertise in the area.
To be fair, the paper very carefully skirts the issue of security, and claims hardly anything: “Additionally, chaotic carriers offer a certain degree of intrinsic privacy, which could complement (via robust hardware encryption) both classical (software based) and quantum cryptography systems.” Now that “certain degree of intrinsic privacy” is approximately zero. But other than that, they’re very careful how they word their claims.
For instance, the abstract says: “Chaotic signals have been proposed as broadband information carriers with the potential of providing a high level of robustness and privacy in data transmission.” But there’s no disclosure that this proposal is bogus, from a privacy perspective. And the next-to-last paragraph says “Building on this, it should be possible to develop reliable cost-effective secure communication systems that exploit deeper properties of chaotic dynamics.” No disclosure that “chaotic dynamics” is actually irrelevant to the “secure” part. The last paragraph talks about “smart encryption techniques” (referencing a paper that talks about chaos encryption), “developing active eavesdropper-evasion strategies” (whatever that means), and so on. It’s just enough that if you don’t parse their words carefully and don’t already know the area well, you might come away with the impression that this is a major advance in secure communications. It seems as if it would have helped to have a more careful disclaimer.
Communications security was listed as one of the motivations for studying this communications technique. To list this as a motivation, without explaining that their experimental setup is actually useless for communications security, is questionable at best.
Meanwhile, the press has written articles that convey the wrong impression. Science News has an article that lauds this as a big achievement for communications privacy.
It talks about it as a “new encryption strategy,” “chaos-encrypted communication,” “1 gigabyte of chaos-encrypted information per second.” It’s obvious that the communications security aspect is what Science News is writing about. If the authors knew that their scheme is useless for communications security, they didn’t explain that very well.
There is also a New Scientist article titled “Let chaos keep your secrets safe” that characterizes this as a “new cryptographic technique, ” but I can’t get a copy of the full article.
Here are two more articles that discuss its security benefits. In the latter, Mirasso says “the main task we have for the future” is to “define, test, and calibrate the security that our system can offer.”
And their project web page says that “the continuous increase of computer speed threatens the safety” of traditional cryptography (which is bogus) and suggests using physical-layer chaos as a way to solve this. That’s listed as the goal of the project.
There’s a lesson here. This is research undertaken by researchers with no prior track record in cryptography, submitted to a journal with no background in cryptography, and reviewed by reviewers with who knows what kind of experience in cryptography. Cryptography is a subtle subject, and trying to design new cryptosystems without the necessary experience and training in the field is a quick route to insecurity.
And what’s up with Nature? Cryptographers with no training in physics know better than to think they are competent to evaluate physics research. If a physics paper were submitted to a cryptography journal, the authors would likely be gently redirected to a physics journal—we wouldn’t want our cryptography conferences to accept a paper on a subject they aren’t competent to evaluate. Why would Nature expect the situation to be any different when physicists try to do cryptography research?