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Securing Cyber Communication

Today’s cyber security measures will not stand a chance when quantum computing technology matures, leaving our online information vulnerable.

However, an upcoming cryptography technique will usher in a new age of secure online communication.

Infographics – Toshiba Quantum Key Distribution

Each year, cyber-attacks on businesses increase. The average time it takes for a company to detect a breach is six months, by which time valuable data has been stolen.

Encryption is one method that’s regularly used to protect and securely pass information online. This method relies on secret keys to encrypt and decrypt information as it’s passed between two parties. A key is just a series of numbers, which is shared between the sender and the receiver of the information. But if a hacker can decipher the key, they can decrypt this information.

The best line of defense against hackers is to make the key very long and random. While today’s computers could theoretically figure out the key, it would take an unfeasible amount of time to do so.

However, quantum computers are capable of carrying out computational operations many orders of magnitude faster than traditional computers. Regardless of their length, current encryption keys could be hacked in a matter of hours using a quantum computer.

To make matters worse, data encrypted today could be decrypted by future quantum computers. Here, hackers wanting to gain access to your data don’t need to decrypt the data immediately; they can just store and stockpile it until quantum computing advances.

So, how can we protect our online information communications from this threat? The cyber security battle will take place in the quantum world and will involve a technique called Quantum Key Distribution (QKD).

Quantum theory describes the behavior of single particles, like particles of light called photons. In the quantum world, as soon as you try to observe a particle, it changes, and its original state is lost.

QKD harnesses these principles of quantum theory to make a message incomprehensible to anyone other than the intended recipient.

Under QKD, the key is transmitted as a series of encoded photons. If someone tries to read these encoded single photons, then this changes their state. This change in the photon (or photons) is detected by the QKD system, alerting users that their communication is no longer secret.

This provides a further layer of security for personal and sensitive data, over and above the standard methods used by banks and credit card companies.

QKD is currently being explored in a variety of industries but is yet to become an established technology. Andrew Lord, head of optical research at BT, expects QKD will initially be applied to the “ultra-secure networks” used by the government and financial institutions, or for specific situations where customers need high security.

As confidence in QKD builds, other industries will start to adopt this technology. The healthcare sector, for example, may start to use QKD to protect sensitive patient health records or the oil and gas sector could use QKD to secure its confidential geological surveys.

“Then, I think from there the sky is the limit and you could see, ultimately, the entire network having a QKD element to it. But we’re not going to go there in one phase. So, I think it is going to be a gradual process from bespoke niche situations to something more ubiquitous,” according to Lord.

To help QKD move into the mainstream, experts are currently trying to transmit quantum keys across greater distances. Toshiba’s QKD technology has achieved a series of world firsts in this area, sending quantum keys across BT’s existing network. Toshiba’s QKD system allows key distribution over standard telecom fiber of 100 kilometers in length, a range capable of covering a metropolitan area.

In 2014, its QKD systems achieved a high-volume and stable QKD connection, sending 25.8Gbits per day for 34 consecutive days through a 45-kilometer installed fiber. Larger data packets were subsequently passed across the network. In 2010, Toshiba achieved an impressive 1 Mbit/second for a distance of 50 kilometers and, in 2016, 1.9 Mbit/second for 35 kilometers and, in 2017, 13.7 Mbit/second for 10 kilometers. This speed pushed the boundaries of what is possible.

Toshiba’s QKD technology distributes keys along a telecom fiber, from one end to the other. BT added this technology to its optical transmission network and is now investigating how it could extend QKD across its network.

Lord explained how Toshiba’s QKD technology could first be used to encrypt a connection to a customer, who might be 10 to 20 kilometers away. Next, they may try to connect an entire metropolitan area and build a city network. “Then, finally, we might want to encrypt the entire country’s network … I guess that is further away, but you can see how this will spread from shorter distances, ultimately, to very large-scale networks,” Lord added.

This opens up the potential for secure communication across any industry handling sensitive data on a large scale. Eventually, there may even be a quantum internet where the power of QKD is unleashed to protect ever ordinary online user.

While such scenarios are not imminent, a handful of enterprises are already investigating quantum key distribution as a means to ensure their organization’s communications remain secure in the future. It’s a savvy and necessary move as quantum computing reaches maturity and provides hackers with a new means to exploit vulnerabilities in the network. Furthermore, and unlike other existing security solutions, QKD is secure from all future advances in mathematics and computing, including the number crunching abilities of a quantum computer.

Of course, it is important to remember that QKD cannot protect us from all cyber security attacks. Andrew Lord explains, “It is literally helping us to make sure our motorways; our basic network infrastructure is secure. We still need to do all of the things we have been doing to make sure the rest of our network is still completely watertight.”

However, with QKD, we are one step closer to creating an online world that’s a safe space for all.