Quantum encryption gets off the ground with China’s Micius satellite


The world's first quantum satellite is launched in Jiuquan, Gansu Province, China, on Aug. 16. 

Credit: China Daily/via REUTERS

The private sector already has some early products as new research pushes boundaries

Quantum computers of the future will be so powerful that many believe they will be used to crack the powerful encryption used today to defend government secrets and protect sensitive corporate data like bank transactions.

In reaction, researchers are developing methods to bolster encryption that also rely on quantum physics. One approach is Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), the use of photons (minute particles of light) in laser light for encrypted quantum communications that primarily travel over fiber optic cables.

With quantum communications, a photon at one end of a fiber optic link can be linked to a photon at the other end, creating an encrypted link through which data can securely flow. Any attempt to tamper with the data would alter the photon’s quantum state, which would be evident at the destination. Once tampering is detected, the key needed to unlock the encryption will no longer work and the communication will remain secure.

August has proven to be a big month for quantum communications research. On Aug., 8, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $12 million to six research teams with 26 researchers at 15 U.S. institutions and universities. The researchers are charged with engineering over four years a quantum communications system on a chip that will operate at room temperature with low energy in a fiber optic network.

Today, quantum communications can be demonstrated in laboratories, but only at very low temperatures with bulky equipment that saps energy, the NSF said.

Then, on Aug. 16, China launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite, Micius, and successfully sent back 202MB of data to the ground the next day. The data was reportedly encrypted using a quantum communications technique, but details haven’t been revealed.

China’s investment in a quantum communications satellite could push government and private sector research into the field. “China is looking to prove secure quantum communications, but there are various experiments” elsewhere, Vikram Sharma, CEO of Quintessence Labs, a quantum communications company, said in an interview.

His company of 50 researchers is developing a cost-efficient, commercially available, smaller-version QKD laser transmission system that should be available in the next 18 months. The basic technology has been successfully tested in Melbourne, Australia over fiber optic cable and under highways to prove its ability to handle disruptions.

The product, currently called Qoptica, would initially be sold to government organizations and banks. Westpac, an Australian bank, is an initial investor. A next-generation version of the product is envisioned to work without the use of a fiber optic network.

With the Micius satellite launch, the Chinese obviously recognize that quantum communications could help bolster China’s defenses over other countries, whether from space or not, Sharma said.

“Competitive advantage among nations relies on cyber superiority,” he said. “This whole field is a step change in technology, not just evolutionary.”

Some experts believe quantum encryption can be cracked, including Alexander Ling, principal investigator at the Center for Quantum Technologies, which is based in Singapore.

ID Quantique, based in Switzerland, already makes QKD products, including the Cerberis QKD Server.

Its technology uses a variation in the way photons are transmitted compared to Quintessence Labs. ID Quantique described its technology in 2011.

This story, "Quantum encryption gets off the ground with China’s Micius satellite" was originally published by Computerworld.

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