Science 7 min read

Quantum Security: Quantum Key Distribution is the End of Malware

We hope this image sets the right tone, becuase, really, who even knows what quantum security is going to look like? | Sergey Nivens |

We hope this image sets the right tone, becuase, really, who even knows what quantum security is going to look like? | Sergey Nivens |

Quantum Infrastructure Table of Contents:

  1. How Close are we to Quantum Infrastructure? An Introduction
  2. How Close are we to Quantum Internet?
  3. How Close are we to Quantum Devices?
  4. Quantum Key Distribution is the end of Malware?

Twenty years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine how much the quantum revolution was going to transform our lives. Now, we’re pretty sure that quantum communication is the solution to nefarious hacking activities. Here, we explore further.

In part 2 of this series, we covered the most practical quantum developments. We even put a date on the creation of the quantum Internet, using the Chinese Micius quantum satellites project.

Experts estimate that a global quantum communication system could be operational by 2030, but this isn’t a target date for any specific developer as far as we could find.

Actually, there’s no “global vision” for a quantum communication system. This begs the question:

Would the anticipated quantum network suffer from the same inherent flaws of our current communication system?

As the Internet grew, security wasn’t a priority until hacking became a problem. This led to rampant abuse of the system which still continues today. Now, we have the opportunity to not let that happen again.

To further ourselves as a technological society, we need a quantum communication system and we need quantum cryptography. With these changes, we would not repeat the same mistakes.

Quantum Key Distribution

Quantum key distribution relies on a pair of entangled photons that share a quantum connection. The method allows the distribution of an encryption key between two remote parties while ensuring the security of the transmission cannot be compromised without an immediate red flag.

Quantum Dots

Tobias Huber, a Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) Experimental Postdoctoral Fellow, focused much of his work on finding the best environments practical quantum key distribution.

While attending the University of Innsbruck in Austria, he collaborated with Gregor Weihs and Glenn Solomon, a JQI Fellow, to study quantum dots as a source of entangled photons.

Quantum dots exist in a nanometer wide space within a semiconductor which is inside another semiconductor. This tiny space behaves like an artificial atom does when stimulated by photons of the appropriate color.

That is, the electrons inside the quantum dot can change energy levels, leaving behind holes that are filled by a released photon when the electron eventually decays.

While the electron is excited and the hole still exists it is called an exciton. When paired with another electron and hole, a biexciton is formed which decays emitting two photons.

An Improved Quantum Entanglement

Using sequences of laser pulses, the team of Huber, Weighs, and Solomon created biexcitons in quantum dots. The team encoded information onto the two ejected photons, which formed a relationship they called a time-bin entanglement.

This improved entanglement is now the most reliable for transmitting quantum information through optical fibers without the risk of photon degradation over long distances.

Unlike parametric down-conversion, a competitor method of quantum entanglement, time-bin-entanglement QKD is virtually impossible to disrupt without being immediately discovered.

By Design, the Internet is Vulnerable to Cyber Threats

The scientists who worked to set up the Internet in its early days didn’t imagine that such a tool could be used by a large demographic. Going further, they couldn’t have anticipated that a huge group of bad actors would immediately work to take advantage of the Internet’s users.

How could they know the system would be scaled up to the point that it plays an integral part in the daily life of billions of people around the world?

Back in the late 1980s, reports broke out about the Morris Worm, the first digital virus spread via the Internet. Even this was seen as such a small issue that the guy who fixed it though he fixed the “bug issue” altogether.

But after the worm wreaked havoc across the Internet, infecting thousands of computers, it became clear that there was more to the problem than one engineer forgetting to do a task.

The bigger the network, the bigger the threat. Nowadays, the Internet is a vast network of billions of connected devices at the mercy of cyber criminality.

Read More: Popular Cryptocurrency Monero Mining Malware Found on Government Websites

In the beginning, the main concern of network engineers was to establish a computer network system that relays information as efficiently and quickly as possible.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t care about the integrity of information. It just didn’t occur to them that future users would use the system itself as a weapon to attack each other.

This is not pointing the finger at the founding fathers of the Internet for all the current cyber evil. These problems are a reflection of the system’s inherent flaws and those of humanity. As always, now we need to learn from our past mistakes.

Read More: Quantum Infrastructure: How Close are we to Quantum Devices?

Quantum Key Distribution: An Antidote to Cyber Corruption?

Let’s say that a quantum Internet will take the place of the current system. Even though we believe that this network will never serve the public at large, let’s say that it will. Even in this case, the developing “quantum network” would serve governmental and research purposes at first.

This may sound familiar because it is.

The same was said about the Internet that, originally, was thought of as a small network that connects a couple of machines located in the same space. This was mainly used by the military and a number of universities.

Before long, corporate mercantilism would interfere to get the network gradually rolled out to the large public.

Today, commercial quantum hardware and software is the goal of tech majors, and they’re at varying degrees of advancement.

With a quantum communication network made up of connected quantum devices, there will inevitably be “quantum malware”.

Wait a minute: isn’t quantum technology like quantum key distribution supposed to be impervious to hacking?

Yes, but quantum cryptography draws its strength from a specific principle in quantum physics.

Quantum entanglement allows the instantaneous transfer of states from one system to another. When two photons are entangled, the quantum state of one is instantaneously reflected on the other, no matter how distant they are.

It is based on this principle that Chinese researchers have successfully performed quantum key distribution via the Mozi satellite.

The laws of quantum mechanics provide a shield against unauthorized access, yet it isn’t 100% hack-proof.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Ottawa demonstrated for the first time how they can clone the quantum state of entangled photons.

Although the “quantum cloning” doesn’t provide perfectly identical photons, because quantum laws prevent this, researchers were still able to get enough information to decode the message. This raises issues over whether quantum key distribution really is hack-proof.

Read More: There is Life After Death According to Quantum Physics

Anticipating the Quantum System’s Evolution

This demonstration of the apparent vulnerability of quantum communication provides scientists with an opportunity to consider preemptive actions against potential quantum hacking.

In a way, the deployment of quantum computing systems could exacerbate things.

Like with the 1988 Morris worm, skillful people with malevolent intent tend to get early access to modern tech tools.

Before the quantum computing networks even become mainstream, hackers could get their hands on quantum processors and compromise the integrity of the current communication channels.

Quantum cryptography (the use of QKD, Quantum Key Distribution) was shown to be “hackable” years before the “quantum cloning” experiment.

If the quantum key distribution isn’t hack-proof, how would public key encryption fare against quantum attacks?

Current cryptography technology has a lot of catching up to do.

The U.S. NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), which maintains a set of cryptography standards, takes the steps to ensure these standards are up to quantum threats.

With 69 quantum-resistant algorithms submitted for evaluation, NIST is now in Round 1 in a process that will lead to the updating of current cryptographic standards and guidelines for the quantum era.

Read More: Researchers Develop Artificial Atoms to Boost Quantum Technology

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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