6 security systems no hacker can crack

Among the hundreds and thousands of codes that have been broken by cryptographers, the government, and even self-taught amateurs tinkering around at home, there remain a small few of codes and devices which have yet to be cracked by anyone.

Among the hundreds and thousands of codes that have been broken by cryptographers, the government, and even self-taught amateurs tinkering around at home, there remain a small few of codes and devices which have yet to be cracked by anyone.

In this article, I’ll take a look at some of the most complex security systems on earth - and what makes them so foolproof.

The actual wall of lava lamps in Cloudflare HQ

 The wall of lava lamps

Remember back in the ‘90’s when everyone had a lava lamp on their nightstand? Well, they’ve made a comeback - except this time, they’re being used for a very different purpose.

Cloudflare, the web security company based in San Francisco, has installed 100 of these devices in their office in order to help protect parts of the internet from hackers.

The arrangement of oil and gloop inside a lava lamp is constantly changing. Cloudflare monitors these by filming them 24/7, and using the constantly changing arrangement of pixels along with a number of other factors, including the level of lighting and the visitors wandering around the building, to create a super cryptographic key.

The unhackable code

The concept of error-free code has been around since Djikstra first came up with the idea back in October 1973. However, at the time, such an idea seemed extremely impractical - if not impossible to actually implement.

However, it turns out that researchers at DARPA have recently come up with a new way for computer scientists to use mathematical code to check that code is functionally correct and error free. The method has the ability to check up to 100,000 lines of code at a time.

This will allow scientists to build a base of extremely secure code on all of their applications, and then to have a number of software programs running on top of it that won’t affect the overall system security.

Using this method has already been successful in a test run that involved defending the ‘Little Bird’ unmanned military helicopter from a ‘red team’ of hackers trying to take it down.

The most heavily guarded place in the world

There’s a reason people say ‘it’s as secure as Fort Knox’ to describe something that’s extremely difficult to break into. Fort Knox, also known as ‘The United States Bullion Depository’, is probably the most heavily guarded place in the world.

The U.S. Treasury hasn’t confirmed exactly what protects Fort Knox - just that it’s “equipped with the latest and most modern protective devices”.

To even get a glimpse of these devices, you’d first have to get past the guard boxes stationed at all four corners of the building, the 40,000 soldiers and civilian employees employed by the Fort Knox army post, and the 20-ton vault door made entirely of steel and concrete.

 The United States Bullion Depository stands on Fort Knox on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in Fort Knox, Ky. Built in 1936, the depository is said to hold gold bullion reserves belonging to the U.S. Treasury Department. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

The cost of protecting pricelessness

Museum security is a tricky art. It’s important to find the balance of protecting valuable art pieces from thieves and vandals, whilst still maintaining an enjoyable, relaxed atmosphere for members of the public and still giving them the chance to connect with some of the most influential creations in history.

The Mona Lisa, which was stolen from The Louvre in 1911, is the only painting that has ever been stolen from The Louvre and then recovered. Later in 1956, the painting was damaged once when someone threw acid over it, and again when someone threw a rock at it, scraping the paintwork below the left elbow of the Mona Lisa.

Now the painting is kept in a special bulletproof box. This helps to protect it from heat, humidity, and vibrations. It also makes the painting resistant to bullets and any other objects thrown at it. It’s not a ‘code’, per-se, but it’s certainly proved to be unbreakable so far.

One example of this was when a Russian woman threw a terra cotta mug at the painting back in 2009. The mug simply bounced right off the glass and smashed.

President Trump's nuclear football detail—a Secret Service member identified as 'Rick' (top photo-left, bottom photo-right), mingling with Mar-A-Lago guests in 2017, c/o Samuel Oakford's twitter

The nuclear football

The nuclear football is known by a few names, including the ‘Presidential Emergency Satchel’ and the ‘black box’. It’s perhaps the most dangerous briefcase in the world, as the contents are said to allow the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers.

The current concept of the nuclear football originated just after the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy became concerned that a commander in Cuba may launch missiles without being authorized to do so by Moscow.

If the president ordered that nuclear weapons were to be used, they would be taken aside by whoever is carrying the briefcase, and the briefcase would then be opened accordingly. Then, a command signal would be issued, and the president would review and analyze the attack options available.

The mysterious 'Somerton man' code

In 1948, a man was found dead on Somerton beach. Fingerprint and DNA tests returned nothing. He remains unidentified to this day.

However, perhaps the most intriguing thing about this man was the fact that he left behind a code - a small piece of paper folded up in his coat pocket. It said ‘Tamam Shud’ - Persian for the word ‘finished’. It appeared to have been torn from a book of Persian poetry called ‘the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyáma’, which a doctor found had been thrown through an open window of his car.

When the back page of this book, five lines of code appeared. They have mystified code-breakers ever since. The code remains uncracked to this day.

 USA Network's "Mister Robot" — 2016

Even the most unhackable codes can be hacked

Hackers are becoming more and more advanced with each passing day. Just because these systems have not yet been broken into, it doesn’t mean that we can afford to be lax with our security measures.

But so far, it looks like hackers and thieves will have to try a little harder before they manage to break into these systems.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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