Security

How quantum computing could create unbreakable encryption and save the future of cybersecurity

Photon-based quantum encryption could help companies better defend against cyberthreats, and it's one step closer to reality thanks to research from Duke University.

A new breakthrough in quantum computing may mean quantum key distribution (QKD) is on its way toward being a practical cybersecurity protocol.

Researchers at Duke University, The Ohio State University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have announced in the latest issue of Science Advances that they've increased the speed of QKD transmission by between five and 10 times the current rates.

Up until this latest breakthrough, which is delivering megabit/second rates, speeds were restricted to between tens to hundreds of kilobits a second.

What is quantum key distribution?

It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but quantum key distribution is reality, and it could be protecting your data before you know it.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of quantum computing (Tech Pro Research)

QKD uses photons—particles of light—to encode data in qubits, or quantum bits. The qubits are transmitted to a sender and recipient as an encryption key, and here's where things get crazy: The transmission channels don't need to be secure.

QKD's whole purpose rests on quantum indeterminacy, which states that measuring something affects its original state. In the case of QKD, measuring photonic qubits affects their encoding, which allows the sender and recipient to immediately know if a hacker is trying to crack their quantum encryption key.

That means, theoretically at least, that QKD would be a perfect encryption: Any attempts to crack it would immediately be noticed and keys could be changed.

Making QKD practical for cybersecurity

The breakthrough made by the Duke research team came from being able to pack more data onto a single photon. The trick was learning to adjust the time at which the photon was released, along with adjusting the phase of the photon, causing it to be able to hold two bits of information instead of just one.

What makes the new system developed by the researchers even more amazing is that they were able to do it with nothing but commercially available telecommunication hardware, save the single-photon detector.

SEE: What will you actually use quantum computing for? (ZDNet)

"With some engineering," said Duke graduate student Nurul Taimur Islam, "we could probably fit the entire transmitter and receiver in a box as big as a computer CPU."

Islam and his research partners say that hardware imperfections render their QKD system less than hack-proof, but their research continues to incorporate hardware shortcomings to make up for them.

"We wanted to identify every experimental flaw in the system, and include these flaws in the theory so that we could ensure our system is secure and there is no potential side-channel attack," Islam said.

While it's likely to take some time to emerge from the research phase and become a practical tool, this latest QKD breakthrough gives cybersecurity a leg up on cybercriminals.

As quantum computing becomes accessible, the likelihood of it being used to obliterate current forms of encryption increases, making the development of practical QKD essential. This should come as good news to anyone concerned about the current, and future, state of cybersecurity.

The top three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. A research partnership headed by Duke University has managed to drastically increase the speed of current QKD transmission, from only hundreds of KBps to GB/s speeds.
  2. QKD transmission is theoretically unhackable because it utilizes quantum uncertainty in data transmission: If an attacker even tries to read the encryption key it will change its state, notifying the sender and recipient that they're under attack.
  3. The hardware used by the research team could be engineered to fit into a single computer-sized box, which means it could become a feasible piece of security hardware in the near future.
Image: iStock/agsandrew

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About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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