Phenomena

The Lava Lamps That Secure the Internet

A wall of lava lamps in a San Francisco office currently helps keep about 10% of the Internet’s traffic secure. Internet security company Cloudflare uses a video feed of the lava lamps as one of the inputs to the algorithms they use to generate large random numbers for encryption. The concept dates back to a 1996 patent for a product called LavaRand. The idea is that using a chaotic, unpredictable source as a seed for random number generators makes it much harder for an adversary to crack your encryption. 

With lava lamps, a lot of that chaos comes from the fluid dynamics involved – without perfect knowledge of thousands of variables, it would be impossible to simulate the lava lamp wall and get the same outcome as the real one – but there’s also randomness that comes from the measurement. People walking by, shifts in lighting, and random fluctuations of individual pixels all help make the video feed unpredictable. For those interested in the details of how Cloudflare uses their lava lamps, the company explains things for both technical and non-technical readers. You can also check out Tom Scott’s video for a good overview. (Image and video credit: T. Scott; submitted by Jean H.)

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