30 December 2022
SpeQtral and Toshiba Digital Solutions Corporation (Toshiba) collaborate to bring Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) solutions to governments and enterprises in Southeast Asia
Embark on a journey to the fascinating world of quantum computers – a world full of possibilities, innovation and break throughs. With unparalleled processing power, quantum computers hold the key to solving some of the most complex problems we face today in fields like medicine, finance, and climate change. However, quantum computers can effortlessly penetrate even the most secure encryption methods that protect our sensitive data, exposing us to cyber threats and exploitation. To tackle this daunting challenge, we need new mechanisms such as quantum key distribution (QKD), which uses the laws of quantum mechanics to generate and distribute keys that are provably secure. In this article, we will delve into the technical intricacies of fibre QKD, why it matters, and examine how it is shaping the future of communications security.
The field of cyber security faces two main risks – the ability of quantum computers to break public-key cryptography and the danger of harvest-now-decrypt-later attacks. With their exceptional processing power, quantum computers can easily factor large numbers used in many public-key cryptography algorithms, rendering any information encrypted using these classical algorithms vulnerable to swift decryption. Meanwhile, harvest-now-decrypt-later attacks take advantage of the time gap between data collection and the availability of quantum computers. In light of these risks, businesses handling long-term confidential information need to take immediate action to combat these attacks. This includes vigilant monitoring and detecting tampering, as well as implementing quantum-safe solutions. The urgency of this matter highlights the pressing need for immediate action to be taken towards deploying quantum-safe security measures.
QKD operates differently from conventional; encryption algorithms. Instead of a software-based , QKD is a physical implementation based on quantum mechanics. The process involves the transmission of photons, the fundamental particles of light, over a fibre optic cable or through the air. Each photon carries a single bit of information, and its polarization is used to encode that bit as a 0 or 1. The laws of quantum mechanics dictate that any attempt to measure or intercept the photons will disturb their polarization, revealing the presence of an eavesdropper. This unique feature enables the receiver to detect any attempted interception and discard the compromised key, ensuring the security of the communications channel. QKD thus provides an infallible way to exchange encryption keys without the risk of interception.
There are several pathways to achieve quantum key distribution, including fibre, free space, and satellite-based methods. Fibre-based QKD is the most mature and widely used technology, utilising existing optical fibre infrastructure to transmit quantum information. Free-space QKD, on the other hand, exploits atmospheric transmission through the air, typically over short distances. The emergence of satellite-based QKD to transmit quantum information over long distances, making it an attractive option for global communication networks.
Each method has its unique advantages and limitations. For instance, fibre-based QKD is known for its high security, fast transmission speeds, and low error rates. However, it is has it limitations, mainly with the distance over which it can transmit quantum information. Free-space QKD offers the advantage of longer transmission distances, but is susceptible to atmospheric disturbances, which can reduce its transmission rates. While Satellite-based QKD has the potential to transmit quantum information over global distances, it is expensive to deploy and maintain.
Fibre optics have emerged as a critical component in today’s telecommunication landscape, playing a major role in data communication for both fixed wired and wireless networks. They serve as the backbone of 5G mobile communication, providing ultrafast connectivity to data centre interconnects, as well as enterprise connectivity to data centres. However, with the increasing threat of quantum attacks, it is crucial to protect this vital infrastructure from any potential threat. This is where Fibre QKD comes into play, offering a theoretically unhackable encryption key that ensures secure data transmissions. Given the practical applications of Fibre QKD in industries such as finance, healthcare, and government, it is becoming increasingly relevant to secure sensitive data transmissions. As technology continues to advance, Fibre QKD will continue to play a critical role in safeguarding the communication networks that underpin our modern society.
Fibre-optic cables are ideal for carrying photons, which are the fundamental building blocks of quantum key distribution (QKD). These cables provide an efficient and reliable means of transmitting photons over long distances, making them an essential component of QKD networks. There are several QKD protocols that can be implemented over fibre, each with its own advantages and limitations. These protocols can be broadly categorized into three groups: discrete-variable (DV) protocols, continuous-variable (CV) protocols, and entanglement-based protocols.
DV protocols, such as the BB84 protocol and the E91 protocol, rely on the transmission and measurement of individual photons that are polarized in different directions. These protocols can achieve high levels of security, but they are limited by the loss of photons due to absorption and scattering in the fibre. CV protocols, such as the Gaussian-modulated coherent state protocol and the differential phase shift protocol, use coherent states of light that are a continuous distribution of photon numbers. These protocols are less sensitive to losses in the fibre, but they require more precise and sensitive detectors.
Entanglement-based protocols, such as the BBM92 protocol and the MDI protocol, rely on the use of entangled photons to distribute the shared secret key. These protocols provide enhanced security against attacks on the measurement devices used in the key distribution process, but they require the use of specialized equipment to generate and manipulate the entangled photons. Overall, fibre-optic cables provide an ideal platform for implementing QKD protocols due to their low attenuation and high bandwidth. This makes it easier to transmit photons over long distances, enabling the development of QKD networks that can span entire cities or even countries.
One of the most prominent examples of QKD implementation is the BT-Toshiba London QKD network, known as the Quantum-Secure Metro Network (QSMN). This network offers a way for sectors to test their use of the technology and start assessing how to implement it as part of their security strategy. The QSMN has been deployed across the City and West of London, covering a large metropolitan area of potential BT customers in sectors such as financial services.
The QSMN is a product of the strong collaboration between BT and Toshiba, who have developed a mature QKD technology over the past two decades. The technology can be deployed over existing fibre networks, making it highly accessible to customers. One of the first commercial trial customers of the QSMN was Ernst & Young (EY). Since then, EY has touted quantum secure data transmission to be the next major step toward protecting data, and an essential component of doing business in a digital economy.
One of the challenges of implementing QKD is the need for specialized equipment and infrastructure. In many cases, this requires building a dedicated quantum network, which can be costly and time-consuming. However, researchers are exploring ways to build hybrid classical-quantum communication networks that can carry both classical data and quantum signals on the same fibre. One promising approach is to use multiplexing technologies to multiplex classical data and quantum signals on the same fibre, effectively allowing existing fibre networks to carry quantum information. This would enable the deployment of QKD on a large scale, without the need for a separate quantum network. Furthermore, hybrid networks would offer the benefits of both classical and quantum communication, providing a more flexible and efficient communication infrastructure. As the field of quantum communication continues to evolve, hybrid networks are likely to play an increasingly important role in ensuring secure and reliable communication in a wide range of industries.
The potential threat posed by quantum computers to even the most robust encryption methods in use today highlights the urgent need for advanced security. QKD provides a viable solution by using the principles of quantum mechanics to generate and distribute encryption keys that are theoretically unhackable. Among the various QKD methods, fibre QKD is the most widely used due to its high security, fast transmission speeds, and low error rates. By utilising fibre optic cables to transmit quantum keys over long distances, fibre QKD offers a practical solution for secure communication. The increasing risk of quantum attacks further emphasises the importance of protecting the crucial elements of our telecommunication landscape, making fibre QKD technology crucial for industries such as finance, healthcare, and governments. As technology continues to evolve, fibre QKD will continue to play a critical role in safeguarding the communication networks that underpin modern society.
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