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:

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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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