Saudi Arabia’s KAUST in global chip-development effort to thwart hackers

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People work on computers on January 22, 2019 in Lille, during the 11th International Cybersecurity Forum. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Saudi Arabia’s KAUST in global chip-development effort to thwart hackers

  • Quantum computers are likely to be able to crack existing communication methods in the near future
  • KAUST contributing to designing of computer chip capable of foiling security threats from quantum computers

DUBAI: Scientists from one of Saudi Arabia’s most prestigious academic institutions are part of an international chip-designing team that is spearheading efforts to put hackers out of business.

The goal of the KAUST team is to design an optical computer chip that can withstand security threats from quantum computers, which many believe will be able to crack existing communication methods in the near future.

The optical chips enable information to be sent from one user to another via a one-time, unhackable mode of communication in “perfect secrecy.”

This allows confidential data to be protected more securely than ever before on public classical communication channels.

The scientists’ proposed system uses silicon chips containing complex structures that are irreversibly changed to send information in a one-time key that can neither be recreated nor intercepted by an attacker.

The results, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, open a new route toward implementing “perfect secrecy” cryptography on a global scale whose costs are economical too.

“This new technique is absolutely unbreakable, as we rigorously demonstrated in our article,” said Andrea di Falco, a professor with the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews and first author of the study.

“It can be used to protect the confidentiality of communications exchanged by users separated by any distance, at an ultrafast speed close to the light limit and in inexpensive and electronic compatible optical chips.”

Although not used yet, the scientists have filed a patent besides the paper in “Nature Communications.”

They are now in discussion with companies in the UK and US, in addition to being in contact with a company in Saudi Arabia.

“It could help governments as well,” said Dr. Andrea Fratalocchi, associate professor of electrical engineering at KAUST and co-author of the research paper.

“This technology, if implemented on a large scale, can put hackers out of business because it will create an impenetrable layer that no one can break.”

With the right funding, prototypes can be deployed with high technological readiness within a couple of years.

Current standard cryptographic techniques allow information to be sent quickly, but chances are they will be hacked by future computers and quantum algorithms.

Redha Al-Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Saudi Ph.D. student at KAUST, said the drive to produce smaller and more efficient chips to enable powerful computing in small devices has led to the development of quantum computers.

"Today, tech giants possess the resources and talent to build quantum computers and use them to perform tasks (earlier) believed to be impossible even with the world's most powerful machines," he told Arab News.

"Some of these tasks involving breaking today's most powerful encryption codes used by everyone daily to keep their information safe and their resources secure."

The research team said that their new method for encrypting data is unbreakable and uses existing communication networks, plus takes up less network space than traditional encrypted communications do.

The chip can be used by private customers who perform bank transactions, for instance, or in the military field, among others, which uses confidential information.

“It’s based on integrated chips used on the sender and receiver,” Fratalocchi said.


Optical Chips

Promise many advantages over their electronic counterparts, including reduced power consumption and processing speedups.

“The chips allow the exchange, on a public channel, of a key between the two people. The key is random; it’s different every time and no one can infer it from the communication exchanged between the two.”

With this key, users can encode information in a way that no other user can decode. The security of this scheme is of the type “perfect secrecy,” a security that can be mathematically proven to never be broken — not by any user nor by technological advance.

Fratalocchi said that three models of security are commonly used currently, adding that it would become possible to decrypt encrypted messages using a protocol called “mathematical security” in a few years.

“This type of security is the one used in many symmetric key cryptographic protocols, such as the one used by the United States to encrypt confidential information,” he said.

“Another security protocol is defined as ‘probable security,’ which is employed in many public key cryptographies, such as in bank transactions.

“All these paradigms are not based on unconditional proofs and are vulnerable to technological development.

“No one can anticipate the technology of tomorrow. An attacker can just save the data of today and wait until the right technology is available to decrypt the information.”

Fratalocchi’s research belongs to the third category, ”perfect secrecy,” which is the sturdiest of them all.

Developed by Frank Miller in 1882, during the age of telegraphy, and patented in 1919 by Gilbert Vernam, it is called the one-time pad (OTP) or the Vernam cipher.

In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, smartphone chip component circuits are handled by a worker at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

At the time, Vernam claimed it was unbreakable but could not prove it mathematically.

The proof became available in the late 1940s.

“What we did is to create a physical implementation of the Vernam cipher and experimentally prove it,” Fratalocchi told Arab News.

“With the advent of more powerful and quantum computers, all current encryptions will be broken in very short time, exposing the privacy of our present and, more importantly, past communications.”

Fratalocchi said that an attacker might store an encrypted message sent today and wait for the right technology to become available to decipher the communication.

“Implementing massive and affordable resources of global security is a worldwide problem that this research has the potential to solve for everyone, and everywhere,” he said.

The new method uses the classical laws of physics — the second law of thermodynamics in particular — to protect the messages.

Keys generated by the chip, which unlock each message, are never stored nor communicated with the message, nor can they ever be recreated, even by the users themselves. This adds an extra level of security.

“A novel form of security must be made available for the future, when current technologies becomes obsolete, making everyone's information vulnerable,” Al-Ibrahim told Arab News.

“This research introduces a new form of security, which depends on a random, unpredictable physical structure that is made uniquely for each individual.”

Fratalocchi said Saudi Arabia is an interesting country for researchers of his ilk because its informatic infrastructure is quite advanced.

“Here, you can perform almost any task online or from any ATM, ranging from any type of government service to paying fines,” he said.

“In Europe, cyber development in the government sector is not as advanced. Saudi Arabia would be an excellent user of this perfect secrecy system for securing any type of communication.”

In this picture taken on May 8, 2017, smartphone chip component circuits are handled by a worker at the Oppo factory in Dongguan. (AFP/File Photo)

The team is currently working on developing commercial applications of the patented technology, a fully functional demo and user-friendly software for the system.

“We are confident of our results,” Fratalocchi said.

“The work took a very long time. I started the idea of using a complex system for communicating security in my post-doctoral research, which was funded from an award that I won from the Enrico Fermi Center for Study and Research in Rome.”

When he moved to KAUST in 2011, Fratalocchi worked on it with Valerio Mazzone, his Ph.D. student, and their collaborators in the UK and the US. It took about five years, with trial and error, to discover the correct system.

“The main difficulty was to find a system that would scale up and could be used on users separated by arbitrary distances,” Fratalocchi said.

“The most important experiment happened around three years ago, when we found the correct configuration in a scalable system that wasn’t too expensive.”

Looking to the future, Dr. Aluizio Cruz, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Unconventional Processes of Sciences (CUP Sciences) in California and co-author of the Nature Communications report, said: “This system is the practical solution the cybersecurity sector has been waiting for since the perfect secrecy theoretical proof” by Vernam.

Cruz added: “It will be a key candidate to solving global cybersecurity threats, from private to national security, all the way to smart energy grids.”



Money laundering gang sentenced to over 100 years, have SR465 million confiscated from them

Updated 10 April 2021

Money laundering gang sentenced to over 100 years, have SR465 million confiscated from them

  • Saudi members of the gang will be subject to a travel ban
  • Non-Saudi members will be deported once they have served their sentences

RIYADH: A money laundering gang in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to a total of 106 years in prison and issued a fine of SR1.08 million ($288,000).
Around SR5 million was seized from the gang and nearly SR2 million was confiscated from their bank accounts, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
Five citizens obtained seven commercial registers to import foodstuffs, opened bank accounts, and handed them over to 16 residents of Arab nationality with the aim of depositing illegal sums of money and transferring them abroad, the Public Prosecution said.
A sum of more than SR465 million was also confiscated and is similar to the amount of money that was transferred abroad.
Saudi members of the gang will be subject to a travel ban and non-Saudi members will be deported once they have served their sentences.
Work is underway to prepare a mandate to recover funds from the countries to which they were transferred, SPA said.

Saudi Arabia announces ten more COVID-19 deaths

Updated 10 April 2021

Saudi Arabia announces ten more COVID-19 deaths

  • The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom has increased to 382,776
  • A total of 6,747 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia announced ten deaths from COVID-19 and 878 new infections on Saturday.
Of the new cases, 410 were recorded in Riyadh, 149 in Makkah, 141 in the the Eastern Province, 30 in Hail, 28 in Asir, 24 in Madinah, 23 in Jazan, 22 in Tabuk, nine in Al-Jouf, eight in Najran and eight in the Northern Borders region.
The total number of recoveries in the Kingdom increased to 382,776 after 578 more patients recovered from the virus.
A total of 6,747 people have succumbed to the virus in the Kingdom so far.
Over 6 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Saudi Arabia to date.

Three soldiers executed for treason — Saudi defence ministry

Updated 10 April 2021

Three soldiers executed for treason — Saudi defence ministry

RIYADH: The Saudi Ministry of Defense has announced the execution of three soldiers - Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Yahya Akam, Shaher bin Isa bin Qasim Haqqawi, and Hamoud bin Ibrahim bin Ali Hazmi on charges of high treason, Saudi Press Agency, SPA reported.
The soldiers were convicted of cooperating with the enemy in a way that violated the Kingdom’s military interests, and were sentenced to death. the report said. 
Denouncing the three convicted, the ministry reaffirmed its confidence in the men of the armed forces “who took their oath and sacrificed their blood to preserve the security and stability of Saudi Arabia.”

Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

Updated 10 April 2021

Film AlUla to boost Saudi film industry

  • New film commission will shine a light on Saudi Arabia by attracting international producers

DUBAI: A new regional film commission is launching in Saudi Arabia, Film AlUla, which is being set up by the Royal Commission for AlUla in the northwest region of the country.

Located 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, AlUla is a place of natural beauty and heritage. It is home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, which is a 52-hectare ancient city.

AlUla is also home to other historical and archaeological sites, including an old town surrounded by an ancient oasis and the Lihyan Kingdom, which is considered one of the most developed cities of the first millennium B.C. in the Arabian Peninsula.

Extreme E, the off-road electric race championship, will hold this year’s inaugural race in AlUla.

Arab News spoke to Stephen Strachan, film commissioner at Film Alula, to learn more.

Give us a little background on AlUla’s new film commission, Film AlUla. 

Film AlUla is a new regional film office, established in 2020 and launched officially earlier this year by the Royal Commission for AlUla at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was met with a positive reaction from both the film industry and international media.

Film AlUla has been tasked with the mission of promoting the county of AlUla as a filming destination and attracting local, regional and international productions to shoot films, TV series, commercials and documentary projects. The Film AlUla team is made up of local and international industry professionals who offer a range of services, expertise and resources to support production projects in AlUla. 

A view of an old town in ALUla surrounded by an ancient oasis. (Supplied)

What is Film AlUla’s objective? 

We have a range of objectives. Firstly, we want to attract production companies to shoot film projects in AlUla so as to showcase this county of outstanding natural beauty and cultural significance, which has, until recently, remained undiscovered by filmmakers and the world at large.  

This in turn will encourage tourists from around the world to visit AlUla, and to discover the region and the rest of the country, in support of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision. Developing our film industry also puts us in a position to shine a spotlight on the wealth of Saudi talent and to provide a platform to champion and support emerging and established creatives here.  

We aim to build a film hub centered in AlUla that generates local and regional employment and educational opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in the film industry.  

What is the investment in the film and production industry in the city?

AlUla has been identified as one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising destinations. We are confident that the stunning landscapes, wide range of diverse locations and millennia-old archaeological sites will attract film productions and make AlUla a major filming destination. Preserving our heritage sites and landscapes remains a priority in AlUla and the sustainable building of our local screen industries.

A robust financial strategy is in place to make the AlUla region the Kingdom’s cultural capital. Archaeological, cultural and touristic complex plans are underway so we can support film productions with world-class infrastructure and a range of accommodation options, from luxury and unique hotels to eco-friendly, desert canyon resorts, designed to raise the profile of AlUla on the international stage.

What are the incentives being offered to producers?

Production companies are encouraged to get in touch with the Film AlUla team directly to discuss our financial incentives. 

Production companies can also benefit from a range of incentives such as free bespoke production support; location scouting; expert knowledge of filming in AlUla and the rest of Saudi Arabia; assistance in sourcing equipment and professional crew locally and regionally; and, of course, year-round sunshine.

With a temperate climate nine months of the year, AlUla presents filmmakers with an uninterrupted extended period of time during which to shoot their productions. 

What are the procedures and guidelines for local and foreign companies to shoot their productions in AlUla?

We are very excited to open AlUla’s doors to film production and share with the world the wealth of beauty, history, and diversity on display here. We welcome all types of production, and as a member of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), we follow best practices as laid out by the AFCI.  

We have a very effective regulatory system in place that is simple and straightforward to ensure production and crew have all the necessary permits in place. Hosted on our website is a Film Production and Location guide that provides a comprehensive overview of all the benefits of choosing AlUla as your production destination. Of course, preserving and protecting our landscape and heritage remain paramount. And, for anyone interested in filming in AlUla, we suggest you reach out to us so we can support you during every step of the process and ensure a successful and enjoyable filming experience.

For more information, please visit

Can you comment on the Extreme E races being filmed in AlUla?

We are thrilled to be the first location featured in the inaugural Extreme E five-stop global race next month, designed to highlight the impact of climate change and promote switching to electric vehicles to protect the planet.  

AlUla will make for an extraordinary and thrilling backdrop for the event. And with Extreme E set to be aired around the world, this is the perfect opportunity to capture the attention of global audiences, enabling them to see the majestic, cinematic landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders of the region for themselves.

Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Updated 10 April 2021

Who’s Who: Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud, founder and CEO of Mukatafa

Prince Waleed bin Nasser Al-Saud is the founder and CEO of Mukatafa.
Mukatafa is a Saudi firm that, according to its website, aims to “build an ecosystem of collaboration between the private and public sectors that empowers Saudi Arabia to grow as a prosperous nation with a sustainable future,” in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030.
Prince Waleed has previously served as CEO for a group of private business initiatives in the Kingdom, vice president of the People and Shared Services department at McDonald’s, Saudi Arabia, and vice president of marketing and business development at NAFA Enterprises, a Saudi holding company.
Prince Waleed is also a member of several business groups, including the Restaurant and Cafes Association (Qoot), the Grocery Store Association (Mo’an), and the Fashion, Jewelry and Beauty Association (ZY).
He sits on the supervisory committee of the Trade Franchise Center at the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority and is on the board of directors at both Alfa Co. for Operation Services and Tamkeen Human Resources. Additionally, he is a member of the advisory committee for investment in the municipal sector and a member of the commercial committee in the Riyadh Chamber.
Prince Waleed holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing, graduating with honors from the University of Tampa in Florida, and a master’s degree in accounting, graduating with honors from King Saud University, Riyadh. He also holds certificates in advanced leadership, strategic management, project management, and human resource management programs.