This breakthrough quantum encryption tool could make the web “hack-proof”

Quantum computing promises to break the most widely-used security systems worldwide, potentially putting the transactions and vulnerable data of millions of people at risk.

To prevent this, researchers are trying to devise ways to protect current security methods from quantum computing before they’re put in place – and a method called quantum encryption could be the answer.

A group of scientists from Duke University, The Ohio State University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory has used the strange properties of quantum mechanics to design what they call a hack-proof, fast version of quantum encryption. The system has been published in the journal Science Advances.

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“We are now likely to have a functioning quantum computer that might be able to start breaking the existing cryptographic codes in the near future,” said Daniel Gauthier, a professor of physics at The Ohio State University. “We really need to be thinking hard now of different techniques that we could use for trying to secure the internet.”

What is encryption?

Currently, any data you send over an online transaction, like bank details or medical information, is encrypted, or scrambled. This means if someone intercepts it during transit, they will be unable to unscramble it unless they have the same encryption key that was used when it was sent, or if they work the key out.

Quantum computing will be much faster than classical computing and will be able to solve problems that might take classical computers billions or trillions of years in just a few days. A lot of the standard encryption keys rely on these kind of problems, which means quantum computers could bring the potential to break the keys.

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However, one of the properties of quantum mechanics, described in the Schroedinger’s cat paradox, says the act of observing the state of an atom or particle automatically changes that particle or atom’s state. This change, which would happen if a hacker intercepted the communications, would alert both the sender and receiver that someone had breached the system. 

This idea, known as quantum key distribution (QKD) is not new, but there is a problem with how quickly the keys can be transmitted. Most systems can only achieve tens of kilobits per second. “At these rates, quantum-secure encryption systems cannot support some basic daily tasks, such as hosting an encrypted telephone call or video streaming,” Nurul Taimur Islam, a graduate student in physics at Duke.

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 The team behind the new paper found a way to pack more information onto each photon, making their key transmit faster. By adjusting the time the photon was released, and the phase of the photon, their system can encode two bits of information per photon instead of one. 

“It was changing these additional properties of the photon that allowed us to almost double the secure key rate that we were able to obtain if we hadn’t done that,” said Gauthier.

And none of it required special equipment. “All of this equipment, apart from the single-photon detectors, exist in the telecommunications industry, and with some engineering we could probably fit the entire transmitter and receiver in a box as big as a computer CPU,” Islam said.

On paper, the technique is perfectly secure, but real-world applications involve equipment that may open up flaws for hackers to exploit.

“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.

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