Quantum Encryption Goes Mainstream

Quantum encryption technology isn't just for governments anymore.

With the revelations that the National Security Agency is snooping in everyone's data, it's no surprise that some institutions would want to protect it with something that is spy-proof, and with unbreakable encryption as well. Banks, hospitals and government agencies all deal in sensitive data, which often by law they are obligated to protect.

10 Good Techs Gone Bad

The answer is quantum cryptography. Once it was the province of government agencies only, but lately the technology has moved to where smaller institutions can use it too.

Several companies have entered the field to build the technology, among them MagiQ Technologies, Quintessence Labs and ID Quantique. Nokia and the University of Bristol in the UK have even developed a version of quantum encryption for mobile phones.

It's a measure of how seriously people take this that investors are putting serious funding into companies that were previously like start-ups - ID Quantique just got $5.6 million from a venture fund, QWave, that specializes in cutting-edge technology.

Quantum encryption is so powerful because it's impossible to listen in on the data without corrupting it. Quantum bits can't be copied, so any attempt to listen in changes them and alerts the people communicating that something is up.

ID Quantique's technology is focused on quantum keys distribution. To ensure security, their technology, which is a kind of card that fits into a server, generates a string of random bits. To make them truly random, a laser diode fires a beam at a mirror that is 50 percent reflective. Any given photon has a 50 percent chance of being transmitted or reflected, to generate a 0 or a 1.

The random bit string is sent on the fiber-optic communications link. If the random bits don't look the same at the other end of the line, they've been hacked and the system sounds the alarm. If all is well, the machine sends the encryption key. Since the keys are also quantum-generated bits, any tampering - any attempt to steal the key - will be detected immediately.

The technology is designed for use in local area networks or between data centers and offices that are relatively close together, said Gregoire Ribordy, CEO of ID Quantique. That's because one of the limits of the technology is that you can't boost the signal the way you would over a conventional fiber optic line, because it would require copying the data which quantum mechanics says you can't do. That limits the distance to 60 miles or so.

Blog: New Spy Tech Keeps Satellites From Bumping

That said, it is possible to expand a quantum network that's larger. Ribordy told DNews that the idea is to build a network of quantum "nodes" that could route keys further along than the current limits allow.

A true "quantum repeater" would need to store photons somehow, Ribordy said. That's a challenge, but given that quantum encryption has entered the world of business, it might be closer than we think.