Researchers at Lancaster University in the U.K. have hit on a radically new way to encrypt data while exploring a completely different scientific field: human biology.
While working to map and understand how the human heart and lungs coordinate rhythms by passing information to one another, researchers created software models to simulate the natural communication. They realized the same modeling could be applied to encryption.
(Related: Another creative form of encryption)
The encryption method is based on coupling functions, which are what allow the heart and lungs to exist independently while operating in sync. Tomislav Stankovski, Peter McClintock and Aneta Stefanovska of the Lancaster University physics department published their findings in the American Physical Society’s journal, Physical Review X. They also filed a patent entitled “Encoding Data Using Dynamic System Coupling,” along with another Lancaster University physics professor Robert Young.
The two ends of encryption, the sender and the receiver (or server), are what the researchers view as dynamic systems representing the heart and lungs. The information is encrypted at various times on both ends and decrypted using coupling functions, so the data only makes sense in the context of both the sender and receiver. According to the researchers, the method is also unaffected by external fluctuations or “noise” that could interrupt the data streams.
The coupling functions transmit and receive multiple encrypted signals simultaneously, creating an unlimited number of possibilities for the shared encryption key and making it virtually impossible to decrypt using traditional methods.
“Here we offer a novel encryption scheme derived from biology, radically different from any earlier procedure,” Stankovski explained in a Lancaster University news release. “Inspired by the time-varying nature of the cardio-respiratory coupling functions recently discovered in humans, we propose a new encryption scheme that is highly resistant to conventional methods of attack.”
This past summer, a group of researchers from MIT and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth published a paper upending a longstanding assumption about encryption. They disproved the 1948 Shannon Theory of information entropy, and in so doing showed that traditional encryption methods could be broken significantly faster than widely believed.
In the months since, researchers, computer scientists and security professionals have come up with countless new and creative methods and platforms for encrypting data, but not until this Lancaster University research has the fundamental logic behind encryption been reimagined from an entirely new perspective.
“As so often happens with important breakthroughs, this discovery was made right on the boundary between two different subjects, because we were applying physics to biology,” Stefanovska explained in the news release.
The new mode of encryption has not yet been put into practice due to a pending patent, but McClintock expressed his high expectations for the scheme’s effectiveness in protecting secure communications between the network of interconnected devices and systems powering the world.
“This promises an encryption scheme that is so nearly unbreakable that it will be equally unwelcome to Internet criminals and official eavesdroppers,” he said.