With new 5G networking equipment on the horizon, quantum-encrypted communications would ensure virtually unhackable transmissions, no matter what vulnerabilities exist in devices.
If the next wave of computing is quantum, it follows that the next watershed battles in cybersecurity will take place in the same realm.
Industry heavyweights like IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Google, along with a number of startups, are beginning to push quantum machines out of the test beds and toward the mainstream. Government labs are researching how to put quantum computing to practical use, and agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology have been working on the security implications of quantum cryptography for years now.
A natural front for quantum computing is in communications, where agencies already have plenty of reasons to take encryption and communications security to the next level to thwart an increasingly sophisticated array of attacks.
A prime scenario revolves around the Chinese company Huawei, a tech behemoth that makes more telecommunications equipment than any other company in the world and more smartphones than anyone except Samsung (Huawei passed Apple for No. 2 in May). Huawei has been targeted by Washington amid the U.S.-China trade war as a threat to national security. It is suspected of slipping backdoors into its telecom gear, tipping off Beijing to security vulnerabilities before the rest of the world and committing other transgressions. Congress last year banned it from selling equipment to the federal government, and the Trump administration in May barred U.S. firms from doing business with the firm without a license.
U.S. bans notwithstanding (the company is contesting them in court and in the political arena), Huawei still sells its equipment to much of the world and is in a prime position to take advantage of the coming shift to 5G wireless, which will bring a whole new generation of networking equipment and user devices into play. 5G would present a prime opportunity for cyber espionage and lends urgency to the cause of securing vital communications against snooping.
That's where quantum communications comes in. In stark contrast to current public-key cryptography protocols for secure data transmission that are rooted in inherently breakable mathematical algorithms, quantum keys rely on the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics to physically transfer a shared secret between two entities. By wrapping an encryption key with a photonic quantum key, the photon’s multiple quantum states and no-observation attributes prevent the transmission from being unknowingly interrupted, corrupted, cloned or exposed.
At the core of quantum computing is the qubit, or quantum bit, which promises to take computing into new dimensions. Traditional computer bits exist in a binary state as either ones or zeros, combining in long strings to make computing possible. In quantum computing, however, an electron or photon -- the qubit -- exists in a twin state of one and zero simultaneously, a property called superposition. When qubits are linked or entangled, a processor’s computing power increases exponentially, leading to the possibility of very small, low-power quantum machines someday blowing the doors off the heftiest traditional supercomputers.
When applied to communications, quantum-based cryptography creates a virtually unhackable transmission, not least because the act of trying to get into a message destroys the quantum state – and the message -- thus preventing snooping.
Qubits are delicate entities that, when encountering outside forces, can easily decohere into a traditional computing state -- that is, a one or a zero, as opposed to the superposition of multiple states. It’s why quantum computers to date have operated at temperatures close to absolute zero and why scaling a quantum process has been a challenge. If a hacker tries to examine the qubits, they crumble into the traditional computing state, a telltale sign that they’ve been compromised. Another issue is that quantum transmissions don’t go very far without getting help on the way. But that challenge to quantum computing creates an advantage for quantum communications.
A newer process showing great promise is quantum key distribution, in which quantum keys transmitted by lasers protect information between two parties. Quantum repeaters, which boost and amplify signals in transmission every 100 kilometers, extend the reach of QKD systems to unlimited distances.
Chinese researchers, meanwhile, have said they’ve teleported quantum-encrypted images more than 4,000 miles, from Beijing to Vienna, via satellite, obliterating the previous, ground-based record of about 250 miles. Quantum teleportation, in which data is transmitted entirely in a quantum state, would be a major step toward a quantum internet.
Government agencies are pursuing quantum in a variety of ways. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, for instance, recently took a step forward in QKD and other quantum technologies by developing thin film materials that emit photons at precise locations. NASA has been working with an early-model quantum machine, and this year partnered with Google to test a quantum chip against NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer in an effort to “prove quantum supremacy.” The National Quantum Initiative Act, signed into law in December, allocates $1.2 billion for quantum initiatives, including developing a quantum-skilled workforce and establishing the National Quantum Coordination Office. The Department of Energy just announced plans to establish new multidisciplinary research centers to support quantum information science. And NIST has been working for several years now on developing and approving a post-quantum cryptography standard. Earlier this year, it announced the 26 cryptographic algorithms that have made the finals of its competition.
Quantum communications still has some hurdles to clear, but if technology’s recent past is any guide, those obstacles will fall sooner rather than later. If agencies are to keep up with -- or, even better, get ahead of -- the curve, it could be time to start thinking seriously about creating a quantum communications infrastructure and nationwide QKD network. Especially with 5G looming, it could be the key to protecting this country’s networks.