How Lava Lamps Help Secure the Internet

Try not to think too hard about the con­cept of ran­dom­ness — and espe­cial­ly about the ques­tion of how, exact­ly, one gen­er­ates a ran­dom num­ber. Most of us, of course, sim­ply ask a com­put­er to do it. But how can a com­put­er, which by its very nature fol­lows unam­bigu­ous direc­tions in a pre­dictable man­ner, come up with a tru­ly ran­dom num­ber, in the lit­er­al sense of the word? As far as the every­day pur­pos­es for which we might need “ran­dom” num­bers — set­ting the com­bi­na­tion on a lock, for instance — mere­ly unpre­dictable num­bers suf­fice. But where, exact­ly, can we draw the line between unpre­dictabil­i­ty and ran­dom­ness?

Albert Ein­stein famous­ly pro­nounced that “God does not play dice with the uni­verse,” draw­ing on a metaphor still cen­tral to human­i­ty’s con­cep­tion of ran­dom­ness. Dice pro­vide “ran­dom” num­bers in that, when thrown, they’re sub­ject to too many phys­i­cal fac­tors — an area of some inter­est for Ein­stein — for us to reli­ably guess which way they’ll land. And so we find our­selves again deliv­ered back from ran­dom­ness into unpre­dictabil­i­ty. But achiev­ing ever-greater unpre­dictabil­i­ty, which has proven invalu­able to fields like cryp­tog­ra­phy, has neces­si­tat­ed com­bin­ing com­put­ers with ana­log phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­na essen­tial­ly sim­i­lar to the rolling of dice.

Using a some­what less ancient tech­nol­o­gy, inter­net secu­ri­ty provider Cloud­flare has tak­en a step clos­er to gen­uine ran­dom­ness. “Every time you log in to any web­site, you’re assigned a unique iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber,” explains Wired’s Ellen Airhart. “It should be ran­dom, because if hack­ers can pre­dict the num­ber, they’ll imper­son­ate you.” But who could pre­dict “the goopy mes­mer­ic swirlings of oil, water, and wax” with­in a lava lamp, let alone an entire wall cov­ered with them? “Cloud­flare films the lamps 24/7 and uses the ever-chang­ing arrange­ment of pix­els to help cre­ate a super­pow­ered cryp­to­graph­ic key.”

The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, Airhart acknowl­edges, “bad guys could sneak their own cam­era into Cloudflare’s lob­by to cap­ture the same scene,” but the com­pa­ny also “films the move­ments of a pen­du­lum in its Lon­don office and records the mea­sure­ments of a Geiger counter in Sin­ga­pore to add more chaos to the equa­tion. Crack that, Rus­sians.” Con­stant vig­i­lance against a threat from Rus­sia aid­ed by psy­che­del­ic bed­room light fix­tures? You’d be for­giv­en for feel­ing unstuck in time, par­tial­ly trans­port­ed to the real­i­ty of half a cen­tu­ry ago. But then, Cloud­flare is head­quar­tered in San Fran­cis­co — a city where the ground­break­ing and the groovy haven’t part­ed ways just yet.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry Explains Cloud Com­put­ing in a Short Ani­mat­ed Video

“The Bay Lights,” The World’s Largest LED Light Sculp­ture, Debuts in San Fran­cis­co

How Art Nou­veau Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic Designs of the 1960s

Visu­al­iz­ing WiFi Sig­nals with Light

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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