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Quantum counterfeiters might succeed

Money encoded by photons should be secure, but physicists find loophole

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7:00am, March 13, 2017
quantum money

QUANTUM CASH  Physicists have created quantum money by encoding data with light. The researchers transmitted a quantum version (right) of a real bill, an old Austrian banknote (left). Each grayscale shade in the quantum bill corresponds to a different photon polarization.

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Scientists have created an ultrasecure form of money using quantum mechanics — and immediately demonstrated a potential security loophole.

Under ideal conditions, quantum currency is impossible to counterfeit. But thanks to the messiness of reality, a forger with access to sophisticated equipment could skirt that quantum security if banks don’t take appropriate precautions, scientists report March 1 in npj Quantum Information. Quantum money as a concept has been around since the 1970s, but this is the first time anyone has created and counterfeited quantum cash, says study coauthor Karel Lemr, a quantum physicist at Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

Instead of paper banknotes, the researchers’ quantum bills are minted in light. To transfer funds, a series of photons — particles of light — would be transmitted to a bank using the photons’ polarizations, the orientation of their electromagnetic waves, to encode information. (The digital currency Bitcoin is similar in that there’s no bill you can hold in your hand. But quantum money has an extra layer of security, backed by the power of quantum mechanics.)

To illustrate their technique in a fun way, the researchers transmitted a pixelated picture of a banknote — an old Austrian bill depicting famed quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger — using photons’ polarizations to stand for grayscale shades. In a real quantum money system, each bill would be different and the photon polarizations would be distributed randomly, rather than forming a picture. The polarizations would create a serial number–like code the bank could check to verify that the funds are legit.

A criminal intercepting the photons couldn’t copy them accurately because quantum information can’t be perfectly duplicated. “This is actually the cornerstone of security of quantum money,” says Lemr.

Story continues after graphic

Funny money

Using a device that comes as close as possible to copying quantum information, scientists created a forgery (right) of a quantum banknote (left). The grayscale shades indicate different photon polarizations: horizontal, vertical, diagonal or circular. In the process of transmitting photons, some are lost, resulting in more blank pixels in the reproduction. Imperfections in the copying process result in some incorrect polarizations (red pixels).

But the realities of dealing with quantum particles complicate matters. Because single photons are easily lost or garbled during transmission, banks would have to accept partial quantum bills, analogous to a dollar with a corner torn off. That means a crook might be able to make forgeries that aren’t perfect, but are good enough to pass muster.

Lemr and colleagues used an optimal cloner, a device that comes as close as possible to copying quantum information, to attempt a fake. The researchers showed that a bank would accept a forged bill if the standard for accuracy wasn’t high enough — more than about 84 percent of the received photons’ polarizations must match the original.

Previously, this vulnerability “wasn’t explicitly pointed out, but it’s not surprising,” says theoretical computer scientist Thomas Vidick of Caltech, who was not involved in the research. The result, he says, indicates that banks must be stringent enough in their standards to prove the bills they receive are real.

Citations

K. Bartkiewicz et al. Experimental quantum forgery of quantum optical money. npj Quantum Information. Published online March 1, 2017. doi: 10.1038/s41534-017-0010-x.

Further Reading

E. Conover. Communicating covertly goes quantum. Science News Online, May 9, 2016.

A. Grant. Quantum communication takes a new twist. Science News. Vol. 188, September 5, 2015, p. 14.

D. Powell. Mix and match qubitsScience News. Vol. 181, March 10, 2012, p. 26.

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