Company Uses Georgia Tech Innovation to Improve Transaction Security

The quality of signals transmitted from devices such as smart phones can degrade dramatically with distance. Whisper Communications is taking advantage of that basic law of physics to provide more secure wireless communication, including protection for financial transactions that use the "digital wallet" technology now under development.

Based on patent-pending technology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Atlanta company has developed an encoding methodology that makes data signals transmitted beyond its "cone of silence" useless to any eavesdroppers. Whisper is now working with First Data, a major payment processing provider, to demonstrate this layer of security using two of the newest Android phones.

"Our product will give consumers a higher degree of confidence that their private information is being protected during transactions, without them having to do anything," said Steven McLaughlin, co-developer of the technology and a Ken Byers Professor in Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Digital wallet technology will enable consumers to use their smart phones and other devices to make financial transactions, replacing traditional plastic credit cards. But without strong security, transferring data from the phones to merchant terminals could expose it to theft from "sniffer" devices that can capture wireless information.

Whisper's software would be installed on mobile devices carrying the digital wallet technology, said Jeffrey McConnell, CEO of the company. It would automatically encode the users' credit card information, which would then be decoded by similar software on the merchant side of the transaction. Because of the company's proprietary coding, the information would only be readable within two or three feet of the merchant terminal -- and hopelessly garbled beyond that distance.

"Once you get outside of that cone of silence, communications is no longer possible," McConnell explained. "An eavesdropper hoping to get confidential information would get nothing. This allows us to set a defined zone within which secure communication can occur. Once you get beyond that boundary, no usable information can get out."

The company believes that mobile financial transactions are the most compelling first application for the product, but the technology could be used wherever data traveling wirelessly needs to be protected. Other uses might be in medical devices that transmit wirelessly, in the electronic check-in pads being developed to gather patient information in medical offices, and in streaming video played via wireless devices, McConnell said.

"Our technology is an encoding methodology, so the methodology is the same with any application, whether it's for mobile payments or high-speed video," said McConnell, who has a background with payment processing companies including American Express, First Data and Western Union.

Whisper Communications has so far received seed funding from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) VentureLab program, Atlanta-based Imlay Investments and the Georgia Tech Edison Fund. It has also received a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The company has been working with First Data to evaluate the new product. A full demonstration is planned for this summer, and McConnell said the software could be ready for the marketplace within six months.

The company expects to license its product to the developers of digital wallets, and to the makers of merchant terminals. Worldwide, there are about 20 million terminals in operation, and most of them would be candidates for the Whisper software. In the United States alone, there are 150 million smart phones.

With its strong roots in financial services and information security, Atlanta is a good place to build a company like Whisper, McLaughlin noted.

"Atlanta is an ideal city for the mobile payments and security approach that Whisper is taking," he said. "It has always been known as a go-to place for cyber-security and has the largest concentration of credit card payment companies in the United States, so the combination of security and payments is a natural."

Whisper's original technology was developed by McLaughlin and Georgia Tech alumni Cenk Argon and Demijan Klinc. It has roots going back to "quantum key distribution" research done at Georgia Tech's Lorraine campus with collaborators from Portugal.

McLaughlin, who is also Georgia Tech's Vice Provost for International Initiatives, realized that technology developed for the earlier project could have applications in securing wireless communications. But he didn't have a startup company in mind until he was approached by staff from the Georgia Tech VentureLab program. The VentureLab team, which included Paul Freet, Keith McGreggor and Stephen Fleming, learned of the technology and approached McLaughlin about forming a company.

"VentureLab has been nothing less than fantastic for us," said McLaughlin. "From the very beginning, we felt high interest, support and a push to succeed."

VentureLab introduced McLaughlin to McConnell, and was instrumental in obtaining funding to support early commercialization studies.

"We have created a good product, none of which would have been there without what VentureLab did," said McConnell. "They helped the researchers and pushed them to explore how this technology could be turned into a viable company."

VentureLab is Georgia Tech's comprehensive center for technology commercialization, open to all faculty, research staff and students who want to form startup companies based upon their research. Part of Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute, VentureLab transforms innovations into companies by developing engaging business models, connecting researchers with experienced entrepreneurs, locating sources of early-stage financing and preparing these new companies for global markets.

Companies created within VentureLab become part of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Georgia Tech's startup accelerator. ATDC has been helping to launch and build successful technology companies for more than 30 years.

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Media Relations Contacts: John Toon (404-894-6986)(jtoon@gatech.edu) or Abby Robinson (404-385-2264)(abby@innovate.gatech.edu).

Writer: John Toon