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Michael Kanellos

Staff Writer, CNET

Magiq Technologies is creating a new line of products this year that it says could help make quantum encryption–theoretically impossible to crack–more palatable to mainstream customers.

The New York-based company said it has signed a deal with Cavium Networks, under which Cavium’s network security chips will be included inside Magiq’s servers and networking boards.

Magiq and Cavium will also create reference designs for networking boards and cards, with all of the necessary silicon to create a quantum encryption system. These will be marketed to networking gear makers, which, Magiq hopes, will include the boards inside future boxes.

“We have operability tests going on with major vendors,” said Andy Hammond, vice president of marketing at Magiq. “Our goal in life is to increase the adoption rate of this technology.”

By the fall, Magiq expects to be able to provide functioning beta, or test, products that include its quantum encryption boards. Volume sales to manufacturers are scheduled to begin in 2006.

Quantum encryption involves sending data by way of photons, the smallest unit of light. The photons are polarized, or oriented, in different directions. Eavesdroppers cause detectable changes in the orientation, which in turn prevents them from getting secret information, as dictated by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which says you can’t observe something without changing it. For added measure, the data is encrypted before sending.

“There is no cracking it. This is like the apple falling down,” said Audrius Berzanskis, Magiq’s vice president of security engineering, meaning that it was like one of Sir Isaac Newton’s natural laws.

This doesn’t mean quantum encryption systems are unconditionally foolproof, he added. Hypothetically, radio transmitters or some other technology could intercept signals before they are sent. Still, these are computer architecture issues: Unlike traditional encryption systems, applying brute-force calculations to a message encrypted using quantum methods will not eventually yield its contents to an unauthorized party.

However, quantum encryption systems are pricey. The two-box system Magiq sells goes for $70,000. Academic institutions and government agencies have been the primary customers, the company said.

Whether demand will go mainstream is still a matter of debate. Nearly foolproof encryption has its obvious attractions. Various security experts have stated, however, that the strength of today’s cryptography is the least of the security world’s worries.

“Security is a chain; it’s only as strong as the weakest link. Currently encryption is the strongest link we have. Everything else is worse: software, networks, people. There’s absolutely no value in taking the strongest link and making it even stronger,” Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security, wrote in an e-mail to CNET on quantum cryptography in general.

“It’s like putting a huge stake in the ground and hoping the enemy runs right into it,” he noted.

Speed also has been a problem for quantum encryption. The deal with Cavium will ideally boost the performance of the Magiq products and lower the costs by standardizing some of the engineering. Cavium’s chips, for instance, will assume encryption tasks now performed in software. Reference designs also allow potential customers to skirt some independent design tasks.