How to unlock the cybersecurity potential of quantum computers

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Momentum around quantum computing grows almost daily, with the technology edging closer to mainstream adoption and promising major opportunity for economic growth. The UK is one of many countries racing to develop a quantum-ready economy, with such technologies listed as ‘vital to cyber power’ within the Government’s recently announced National Cyber Strategy. But while quantum computers offer an unparalleled opportunity given their power, this potential also brings with it a severe cyber security threat which makes quantum unviable without first being secured.

About the author

Andrew Shields, Head of the Quantum Technology Division at Toshiba Europe.

Public key encryption a critical part of today’s cyber security infrastructure – essential to the web, ecommerce, and the secure transfer and storage of vast quantities of sensitive business and personal data. Yet the underlying security of these public key encryption, taken for granted for a long time, is now under threat. We’re living at a time where cyber-attacks are becoming increasingly numerous, advanced, and diverse. Ransomware, encrypted threats and cryptojacking are just a few attack methods found to have significantly increased in number over the past year, according to SonicWall’s 2022 Cyber Threat Report.

The concern is that this is soon to be aided further by the arrival of quantum computers, which will severely weaken much of the encryption techniques that we rely on today. As such, there is a need to future-proof data now before it’s too late, particularly that which remains sensitive for a long time – such as genomic or financial information – given hackers can bide their time as quantum looms closer, in the meantime harvesting encrypted data that they’ll soon be able to break.

Negating the quantum threat

Fortunately, there are solutions in play to negate this threat in the form of quantum key distribution (QKD) – a secure method of generating and distributing secret keys between two parties on an optical network. By harnessing the properties of particles like photons, QKD can be used to generate and distribute secret keys needed for cryptographic applications. By sending streams of encoded single photons through a network, it is possible to share a secret digital key that can be used for encrypting or authenticating information while also preventing cyber criminals from accessing and using the keys.

Through decades of tireless research QKD has been developed to the point where it is now both commercially viable and available. QKD systems such as Toshiba’s have been refined to overcome stumbling blocks to the technology through innovative capabilities such as high key rates, longer transmission lengths, multiplexing and active stabilization. Multiplexing enables QKD to be implemented on data carrying fiber, subsequently reducing the cost of deployment and ensuring it can work within the existing network infrastructure supplied by today’s carriers. 

Active stabilization enables a QKD system to distribute key material continuously in even the most challenging operating conditions, and without any user intervention – providing the stability necessary for real-world deployment. The net of this is that these systems are more future proof and easier to deploy and operate in real, deployed networks. And real-world deployment is exactly what we are now seeing, with it no surprise that organizations within sectors handling highly confidential data are implementing quantum-secured networks via this method.

Real-world deployments

In the UK, the National Composites Centre (NCC) and Centre for Modelling & Simulation (CFMS) have deployed a QKD network between their sites in Bristol demonstrating the secure transmission of confidential information which replaced a ‘manual’ approach of physically transporting sensitive design and manufacturing data on portable storage devices – subsequently saving time and enhancing the security of critical data. Meanwhile in financial services, a major international bank has successfully secured a mission-critical blockchain application.

It is telling that within such sectors where data privacy is of paramount importance – smart manufacturing, finance, and healthcare – the quantum threat is already being taken seriously. It’s now imperative that other sectors follow suit before it is too late. Meanwhile the evolution of QKD continues in a race to ensure wider protections for businesses and society in the quantum era. Most notably at an IoT and device-level, a chip-based QKD system could maximize protection, enabling mass-deployment of such security in this age of unprecedented data proliferation.

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Andrew Shields is Head of Quantum Technology at Toshiba Europe.