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Does quantum cryptology offer hack-proof security?

JD Sartain | Sept. 10, 2015
New quantum cryptology research could result in systems that are impossible to hack. But good luck trying to explain it to your boss.

University of Utah photonics
Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Untangling hyper-entangled twisted light. 

Photons in the form of a bi-photon frequency comb. 

Quantum-powered random numbers generated by an entropy engine that exploits quantum mechanics. 

Quantum cryptology may be the hottest topic in security these days, but it sure reads like a lot of sci-fi jargon. But what does it mean? 

Bruce Potter, CTO of the KEYW Corporation, defined it to a room full of privacy professionals this past July at the Black Hat conference. He explained that with so much concern regarding the quality of our protective encryption capabilities, this is still a complicated and misunderstood process. Quantum cryptology (and its crypto components) is a mind-bending concept that baffles even the most experienced scientists. Those who try to understand what’s going on are stymied by the diversity, age and code complexity of the various software components. And, while cryptographic core algorithms have been well-studied, other components in enterprise cryptosystems are less understood. It's no wonder this field of science incites so much controversy. 

According to Toshiba, it means a stable, unbreakable encryption method that uses photons (or light particles) transferred through a custom-made, fiber-optic cable that's completely independent of the Internet. And, it's hack-proof because any attempts to eavesdrop (intercept, copy, wiretap, etc.) such a transmission alters the quantum state – that is, scrambles the encoded data – and is immediately detectable. 

Hirokazu Tsukimoto, a spokesman at Toshiba, says quantum cryptographic communication uses quantum physics to ensure that genomic data encrypted with digital keys remains undisclosed. Bits are transmitted by individual photons, which cannot be manipulated without leaving remnants of the intrusion. "Toshiba has developed the world's fastest quantum key distribution prototype based on a self-differencing circuit for single photon detection," says Tsukimoto. "Field trials begin this month to evaluate the prototype for commercial use in five years. Further development includes large-scale quantum cryptography networks." 

Meanwhile, however, other quantum cryptographic research is sprouting up in universities and corporations all over the planet. UCLA, MIT, Columbia, Duke, University of Maryland (UM), University of Rochester (UR), University of Glasgow (UG), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and Whitewood Encryption Systems (WES), to list some of the notable ones, are all working frantically to improve, perfect and expedite this technology. 


UCLA's engineering research team has discovered that photon pairs can be divided, then entangled into multiple dimensions by using the photons' energy and spin properties. Each additional dimension doubles the photon's data capacity, which means photon pairs can hold 32 times more data than they could using the standard quantum encoding methods. 


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