Towards a global dependability and security framework Protecting personal data with the laws of physics
Cryptographic technology underpins most data security, allowing banks, governments, companies and individual citizens to exchange information securely. But advances in computing power are making traditional cryptographic techniques less secure, potentially exposing personal data to criminals.
The answer, say researchers working in the SECOQC project, lies in a new generation of cryptography using quantum mechanics to protect the data. While classical cryptography employs mathematical techniques to encrypt messages, quantum cryptography uses the laws of physics to protect the information.
Modern cryptography relies on the use of digital ‘keys’ to encrypt data before sending it over a network, and to decrypt it at the other end. The receiver must have a version of the key code used by the sender in order to decrypt and access the data.
However, as computer-processing power has increased in recent years, criminals have found it increasingly easy to crack cryptographic keys.
The 512-bit RSA public-key cryptosystem, developed in 1977, can now be broken by university students in a matter of months and even more advanced encryption methods may not be secure for long.
Meanwhile, quantum cryptography makes use of the properties of light to underpin a method of encryption that is theoretically unbreakable.
Typically, a sending optical device puts photons into a particular state, which is then observed by a receiving device at the other end of a fibre-optic connection. Since it is impossible to intercept a light transmission without changing it, important information can be exchanged with great security.
The team behind the SECOQC project set out to design and validate a network for dependable and secure long-range communication built upon quantum key distribution (QKD) technology.
Toward securer communications networks
Combining the expertise of quantum physicists, network specialists and experts in the fields of cryptography, electronics, IT security, and software development, the team developed devices to generate keys and built the technological architecture to share them over a fibre-optic network.
Their goal is to provide citizens, companies and public institutions with an efficient means of improving security standards in electronic communication and data exchange via public channels.
This could lead to a quantum communications network similar to the then nascent internet network in the United States back in the 1970s.
The world’s first quantum bank transfer
In the course of the project, the technology was used to perform the world’s first-ever bank transfer using quantum cryptography by sending €3 000 over a 1.45-km fibre-optic link between Vienna City Hall and the headquarters of Bank-Austria Creditanstalt.
In October 2007, it was also used to provide a secure line for counting votes cast in Geneva in the Swiss national elections, marking the first real-world use of the technology.
One of the project partners, id Quantique, a spin-off company from the University of Geneva, is now working on deploying a quantum communications network in Geneva, known as SwissQuantum.
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Funding SchemeIP - Integrated Project
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