Random physical phenomena

over 14 years ago

Many modern random number generators attempt to use some form of quantum-mechanical noise, widely considered to be the gold standard for randomness. (For a discussion of empirical verification of quantum unpredictability, see Bell test experiments). Some phenomena used include:
* A nuclear decay radiation source (as, for instance, from some kinds of commercial smoke-alarms), detected by a Geiger counter attached to a PC.
* Atmospheric noise, detected by a radio receiver attached to a PC
* Thermal or quantum-mechanical noise, amplified to provide a random voltage source. A favored source of noise is avalanche noise generated from a reverse-biased zener diode. The thermal noise from a resistor can also be used.
One approach is to convert the noise source into random bits in a separate device that is then connected to the computer through an I/O port. The acquired noise signal is amplified, filtered, and then run through a high-speed voltage comparator to produce a logic signal that alternates states at random intervals. Care must be taken when amplifying low-level noise to keep out spurious signals, such as power line hum and broadcast transmissions. In some simple designs, this logic value is converted to an RS-232 level signal and sent directly to a computer's serial port. Software then sees this series of logic values as bursts of "line noise" characters on an I/O port. More sophisticated systems may format the bit values before passing them into a computer.
Another approach is to feed an analog noise signal to an analog to digital converter, such as the existing audio input port available on most personal computers. The digitized signal may then be processed further in software to remove any bias.
Some have suggested using digital cameras, such as webcams, to photograph chaotic macroscopic phenomena. A group at Silicon Graphics imaged Lava lamps to generate random numbers. U.S. Patent 5732138 One problem was determining whether the chaotic shapes generated were random -- the team decided that they are in properly operating Lava lamps. Other chaotic scenes could be employed, such as streamers blown by a computer's exhaust fan or bubbles in a fish tank (fish optional). The digitized image will generally contain additional noise resulting from the video to digital conversion process.
One commercial product, Quantis from id Quantique SA, exploits an elementary quantum optics process, sending photons one by one onto a semi-transparent mirror. The mutually exclusive events (reflection - transmission) are detected and associated to "0" - "1" bit values.
Perhaps the most common approach is to use precise timing of the interrupts caused by mechanical input/output devices, such as keyboards and disk drives as a source of randomness. Done carefully (as in, for example, the Yarrow algorithm), enough entropy can be collected for the occasional creation of cryptographic keys and nonces.

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