It sometimes feels like nanotechnology is a solution looking for a problem. Though there has been much speculation about the potential applications of nanotechnology, many benefits the technology remain quite underdeveloped. One exception is in the area of cybersecurity.
While I don't expect nanotech attacks or nanotech-based security strategies to appear this year, one of the major cybersecurity lessons the industry is learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the threat landscape, and the way organizations respond to it, is more dynamic than ever. Here are three areas where nanotechnology is likely to influence cybersecurity, and my best guess at how quickly we are likely to see tangible nanotech solutions.
Nanotech for Cryptography
The first major way in which nanotechnology is contributing to cybersecurity is by allowing the development of more complex cryptographic schemes. Each year ushers in a higher level of cybersecurity threat to the online landscape, adding to the undeniable evidence that current encryption protocols are increasingly breakable. Because of this, some organizations have turned to more exotic solutions to secure their communications.
One of these is quantum cryptography. Recent research has shown that advances in nanoscale technologies might soon allow the creation of quantum chips that will be far more secure than traditional cryptographic hardware. This is because CMOS transistors — which still form the basic building blocks of modern computing hardware — tend to "leak" information on their state when they turn on or off. Nanoscale quantum chips, in contrast, can be made essentially uncrackable.
Intelligent Threat Detection
Another promising area of crossover for nanotechnology and cybersecurity relates to the development of truly intelligent threat detection systems. Many organizations are pursuing research that examines the potential benefits of using nanotechnology to replicate biological systems in digital computers. The US government is a heavy backer of this idea.
This application of nanotechnology builds on the success of neural networks over the past decade, a success that has seen them become all but ubiquitous wherever large amounts of data need to be processed. By leveraging nanotechnology, researchers claim, we could build computers inspired by the structure of the human brain, which would offer far greater predictive abilities than the neural networks already on the market.
Many of the applications of these "intelligent" systems would be military in nature. They could help organizations monitor energy or weapons systems that require software so complicated that it exceeds a human's ability to write and verify the software and its performance. However, scientists could also use this technology to quickly create personalized treatments for individual patients.
From a cybersecurity perspective, nanoscale AI systems hold much promise. Not only could they allow emerging threats to be quickly identified and isolated, but they could also be programmed to take proactive measures to shut down incoming threats. In this way, nanotech and AI might solve the skills shortage that plagues the cybersecurity industry.
Beyond exotic applications such as quantum cryptography and improved AI, nanotechnology could have significant implications for the safety and security of the average consumer. One of the goals of nanotechnology researchers for the past few decades has been to build full systems-on-chips that are small enough to be ingested or implanted in the human body.
At the moment, these systems are used for a limited number of tasks, mainly to monitor patients within a healthcare context. Biomaterials scientists at MIT, for instance, are testing a tiny pill that combines a microphone, a thermometer, and a battery to collect several measures at once from inside a body.
Such embedded systems could, however, advance consumer-level security practices considerably. In the same way that browser-based password managers and consumer-focused encryption programs seek to harden consumer devices against attack, an implanted device could be used for authentication and encryption while being nearly impossible to steal. Though there are still obvious privacy issues to be solved, expect to see this idea become mainstream in the next decade.
Some of these applications of nanotechnology in cybersecurity are already upon us: Several banks, for instance, already use quantum cryptography based on nanoscale architectures. Others, such as a world where communications are secured by implanted chips, remain speculative for now. What is clear, however, is that nanotech is certainly one of the disruptive trends changing cybersecurity, one that cybersecurity professionals can't afford to ignore.