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New security system is invisible and virtually "uncrackable" (Released: 10/7/96)

by David Pesci, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- It may be the greatest advance in security technology since the invention of the padlock. It has applications for everything from cash, credit cards, and computers, to homes, cars, and super secret government installations. It's also invisible to the naked eye and nearly impossible for criminals to crack.

It's called a "coded phase mask," and its development is being pioneered by Bahram Javidi, a professor of electrical and systems engineering. The technology has caught the eyes of some impressive potential customers, including NASA and the US Air Force. It has also been the subject of articles in recent issues of Nature and The Financial Times of London.

"The potential for this technology can be quite staggering," says professor Javidi. "It can be applied to virtually anything you want to secure, easily and cheaply.

The optio-electronic system relies on a piece of film that can be as small as a dot made by a pen. The film, though transparent to the naked eye, contains millions of microscopic pixels which, when scanned by a laser beam, produce a unique pattern. This pattern must exactly match an identical pattern stored in the scanner or it is rejected.

It sounds similar to the swatching of a magnetic strip that we see done so often with our credit and ATM cards. But Javidi's system contains a few important differences. For one, unlike holograms used on credit cards today, the pixel pattern can not be counterfeited or replicated by using a digital scanner or a high-resolution photocopier. The pixel pattern can also be combined with coded biometric information such as photographs, finger prints or retina scans. As a result, if someone tries to use a stolen credit card, their own biometric information will immediately disqualify usage. If the card has been doctored with a substitute photo or finger print, the scanner will reject the image, even if the first phase mask is intact because the second mask is inaccurate.

How difficult is the system to crack? Javidi says there are more than 1010,000 states that a single phase mask code could be in.

"Even if it were possible to do 100 correlations of the code per second, it would still take 1090 years to find the code," he says.

And because the optical code can fit in a very small area, it can be applied to everything from cash to door locks to system locks inside computers, to, well, anything that needs securing.

"I don't want to say it will impossible to crack the system," Javidi says. "But the equipment to do so will be very, very expensive, and the knowledge of how to apply it is highly specialized. In other words, this is not something that can be breached by a high school genius-hacker or a clever criminal with a good computer imaging system."

The technology has drawn the interest of NASA, which is having a prototype designed for their most sensitive systems. The US Army, US Air Force, and DARPA (The Defense Research Project Agency) have also shown interest and provided Javidi with grant funding to further refine his area of research. In addition, a number of companies are currently been funded by the U.S. government to produce a working prototype based on the system Javidi has developed.

Javidi estimates that the some versions of the optically coded phase mask system will become available within a few years.