New quantum gadget could make contactless payment more secure

A prototype gadget that sends secret keys to encrypt information passed from a mobile device to a payment terminal, could help to answer public concerns around the security of contactless and wireless transactions, a new Oxford University collaboration has found. Despite being a leader in the digital world, and mobile payments available on everything from petrol, to parking and café transactions, UK consumers have been slower than expected in using smartphone apps to pay for purchases. Citing safety concerns and fear of theft as the main reason for their insecurity.

While many technologies use encryption to make connections more secure, none have been able to detect eavesdropping. Quantum technology uses millions of single particles of light to send encryption keys. The protocol can detect unusual activities such as eavesdropping, and then shuts down the communication to prevent further hacking.

The quantum key distribution system is considered secure because even if someone hacks the code, and attempts to pass it on, the very act of measuring the quantum signal, alters it, and makes it unusable. If used in a mobile device for example, the gadget could allow secure links to near-field communications mobile payment systems and indoor Wi-Fi networks. It could also significantly improve the security of cashpoint withdrawals, and prevent cashpoint skimming attacks, which cost banks billions each year.

Speaking on the unique nature of a quantum system, Choi said: “When a hacker attempts to tap into the channel it will change the content of the key. We’re not saying this technology can prevent eavesdropping or hacking, but if people do, we know they are there.”