A Quantum Leap For Data Security

16. April 2018.








Change sometimes comes to technology at the speed of light. Literally.

In news that bowed from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in March, strides are being made in developing a high-speed quantum internet.

The developments in Moscow come even as companies are racing to develop quantum computers. Those machines would be fast enough, should they fall into nefarious hands, to shatter today’s hardiest encryption codes.

If the encryption is broken, then access to data becomes a snap, rendering transactions, personal information and any number of other valuable assets vulnerable.

In security, as always, time is of the essence. The supercomputers would be able to break encryption codes in a matter of seconds, where such efforts might have once taken weeks.

The emergence of a high-speed quantum internet, then, would be a way to secure the actual transmission of data, but at speeds that approach those used today via traditional methods, rendered in gigabits per second.

In an interview with PYMNTS, Dmitry Fedyanin, senior research fellow at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), said that bringing data transmissions up to speed with its “classical counterpart” – where information wends its way over optical fibers, but through quantum technologies – brings security and new use cases into view.

At its highest level, the high-speed quantum internet means that data moves between parties “without the risk that anybody can intercept the information,” he told PYMNTS.

Think of it as physics vs. algorithms, then, in a universe where the latter is secure only for some length of time, and the former is secure forever.

Fedyanin told PYMNTS that the classical communication model shares information across the internet using (via optical fiber) a transmitter and receiver. Electrical signals are converted into optical bits and then back to electrical bits. Along the flow (you remember the concept of ones and zeros), data can be intercepted.

Fedyanin projected that the eventual emergence of a quantum computer is likely, as there is no dearth of companies bringing research efforts to bear on developing quantum computers, ranging from IBM to Google.

We may be a long way away from the computer’s debut itself, acknowledged Fedyanin – but change would come in one fell swoop.

“The idea is that if someone built a quantum computer, it can solve the mathematical problems [that are part of encryption] almost immediately … because of this, all classical communication becomes unsecure,” said Fedyanin. “In order to overcome this problem, we need what is called quantum communications.”

Underpinning the concept of quantum communications is the photon, comprised of light, and which can be used to carry strings of bits of information (encoded in those photons) between parties.

The research team in Moscow has found some promise in silicon carbide, which has been used in semiconductors and can be used to emit photons.

But, cautioned Fedyanin, “we need to transmit only one photon.” A single photon to carry data, he noted, is crucial – any more and the bad guys might be able to grab one and get a copy of the data.

Due to the characteristics of quantum physics, the single photons cannot be copied or intercepted without the parties on either end of the communication (or, for our purposes, transactions or even the conveyance of, say, personal identifiers) being alerted. In a nod to one-to-many lines of communications, Fedyanin told PYMNTS that quantum communication can transfer from one node to any number of other parties or nodes.

Asked about the eventual commercialization of quantum communications across financial services, say, or even identity verification, he told PYMNTS that “we are in the beginning of the process.” There are some challenges that have yet to be overcome – the photons can be affected by their physical environments, and the single photon transmission can, so far, conceivably occur only over relatively short distances, such as several kilometers. Those challenges, he said, might be solved over the next 10 years, and a quantum computer is not likely to appear before then.

“So that is why we can build a quantum communication network before someone can build a quantum computer,” Fedyanin told PYMNTS.

With a high-speed quantum internet at the ready, it’s an acknowledgement that the challenges of keeping data away from those you don’t want accessing it, especially in financial services, will get a lot tougher when quantum computers come along.

“You have to be prepared,” said Fedyanin, as “we do not know where and when we can expect a new enemy.”

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