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A hacker trying to determine the next digit in a true random-number sequence will find it computationally infeasible. They date back to ancient Sumeria and Egypt, and were used as the key element in games of chance. As long as they aren't loaded, or the environment isn't otherwise altered to favor certain outcomes, throwing dice produces a reliable stream of random numbers. You can generate the numbers only as fast as you can throw - making, say, a craps game an impractical means for generating large strings.

In the 20th century, the demand for random numbers exploded.

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Such systems are often referred to as pseudo-random number generators.

RNGs attempt to get around this shortcoming by generating seeds from a number of seemingly unpredictable sources.

The Random button on a CD player, for example, falls woefully short of its name.

When you press it, you never hear the same song twice or three times or even ten times in a row, which would have to be possible in a truly random set.

But when large ecommerce sites gobble millions of random digits every day to encrypt information, leafing through a book of tables doesn't cut it.

What's needed is a high-output generator that can plumb mere disorder and extract true randomness - a task, incidentally, beyond the reach of any computer on earth. A digital device can be programmed to scramble the bits of a number in such a way that the result appears to be unrelated to previously generated numbers.

The new process replaces the lava lamps with a more Zen-like source of entropy: a webcam with its lens cap on.

The chaotic thermal "noise" emitted by the webcam is digitized and put through a hash algorithm that churns the number set, stripping unwanted sections of predictability.

(Patent 5,732,138: "Method for seeding a pseudo-random number generator with a cryptographic hash of a digitization of a chaotic system.") The Web site attracted millions of visitors.

Some came for the shagadelic views of lava lamps in full gurgle; others for a peek at the physics and math being used to generate random seeds.).

Every time you establish an SSL connection to, say, E*Trade, there's a string of digits working hard behind the scenes.

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