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How quantum cryptography will soon be shaping online security

Nov 14, 20175 mins

Neil Bramley from Toshiba discusses the role quantum computing will play in future security

The basic building blocks of computing are set to morph from maths to physics in the future with the introduction of quantum computing which, although years in the making, is still some way from mainstream adoption. Global Industry Analysts forecasts its global market to reach $2 billion by 2024, a growth which is primarily driven by a constant need for the most secure online data transmission possible. Quantum cryptography is emerging from this ongoing development as a highly-evolved protection method, necessary to combat ever-increasing security threats.

With the continuing rise of the internet of things (IoT), a vast number of smart devices and peripherals are connecting to the cloud. Cisco suggests a staggering 14.1 zettabytes of data will be present in the cloud in 2020, compared to just 3.9 zettabytes in 2015. With such an immense amount of data putting a considerable strain on the cloud, 5G’s impending arrival promises relief. It’s also – paradoxically – a factor in the cloud’s growth: there will be a projected subscription base of half a billion by 2022, as the surge in speed promised will push mobile and IoT data usage to new heights. Consequently, by 2021, IDC predicts that global IoT spending will reach $1.4 trillion in order to try and cope with these swathes of data.

With data so prevalent, encryption is one of the most popular types of protection in cybersecurity: over 80 per cent of mobile device data is encrypted, a far higher percentage than corporate data despite its generally more sensitive content. All of this data presents a target to would-be hackers, whether in the cloud or on devices, particularly when cyber-security is a recognised shortfall of businesses; one only has to consider the recent high-profile WannaCry and Petya ransomware attacks.

Pinpointing quantum cryptography: A definition

Benefitting from the very nature of quantum physics, quantum cryptography can produce a message unreadable to all except its specific, intended recipient. This form of quantum computing is Quantum Key Distribution (QKD)—the message beneficiary will still need a transmitted ‘key’ to decode the contents. How QKD transmits is what brings encryption into a new era of online security: keys are distributed as photons, which are usually light particles. If a third-party intercepts, the key immediately changes its state, rendering itself unreadable and, consequently, useless. This alteration or crystallising of state also acts as an indicator to the intended recipient that its contents have been compromised. This phenomenon is due to the fundamental physics law of observation: to observe something is to change it. The QKD particles are able to exist simultaneously in more than one place and state, only choosing a behaviour upon coming into contact with something else—such as a hacker.

An early example of quantum cryptography was during the Swiss election of 2007, where a quantum connection was used to secure the transmission of data from an entry centre to the government’s central data repository. This is a strong example of an everyday situation in which data corruption could realistically be expected, as each result is highly valuable.

Recently, Toshiba has made a breakthrough with quantum cryptography at its Cambridge Research Laboratory by creating the world’s fastest QKD device. Attaining a speed of 13.7Mbps per second—roughly seven times faster than Toshiba’s previous record speed of 1.9Mbps—this breakthrough brings the practical utilisation of quantum technology one step closer to the wider global community.

Future-gazing: How can quantum cryptography transform the online landscape?

Expense presently restricts the use of quantum cryptography. Yet while it is likely to be some years before the technology is widely utilised, now is the best time to prepare in order to stay ahead in the race between hackers and cryptographers. Techniques like harvest and decrypt are already being deployed by cybercriminals, threatening the integrity of encrypted data by scraping and storing it until they have the capability in the future to decipher it with quantum computers. Such a device’s power vastly outstrips that of a classic computer. This currently secure data is, therefore, already vulnerable to the hackers of the future.

So what can be done now to diminish the online security threats of the future? Industries handling sensitive data on a large scale – like finance, health care and professional services – will obviously remain prime targets. A heavy impact is also likely for businesses who do not take the time to educate and plan accordingly for a future shaped around quantum computing. Support for IT decision makers will also be crucial in maintaining strict online security.

Quantum cryptography has the ability to usher in a new age of ‘unhackable’ online communication—as long as businesses make the effort now to empower themselves through education on this emerging technology, ready to update their methods when the time comes. Historically, businesses fall behind in keeping themselves aware of trends in cybercrime. However, by understanding how quantum cryptography can work to fill in gaps in online defences, such as with the protection of abandoned historic data, businesses will be well-placed to stay one step ahead of any complex threats in the future.