The quantum cryptography arms race has begun

The quantum cryptography arms race has begun

By Roger A. Grimes
Created 2014-06-24 03:00AM

I've been fascinated by quantum computing and quantum cryptography for many years. Quantum computing promises to give us much faster computers, while quantum cryptography promises unbreakable crypto.

While the theory of quantum computing has been around since the early 1980s, creating widely usable quantum computers and systems has proven devilishly difficult. Scientists make incremental improvements every year and promise usable quantum systems in a decade's time. The barriers are both technical and market-driven.

[ Quantum cryptography is the last, best defense [1] | Build and deploy an effective line of defense against corporate intruders with InfoWorld's Encryption Deep Dive [2] PDF expert guide. Download it today! | Stay up to date on the latest security developments with InfoWorld's Security Central newsletter [3]. ]

Quantum obstacles

On the technical side, quantum computers are still fairly crude. No one has come remotely close to building a quantum computer that is as fast as a traditional, binary computer.

Quantum computers work using computation units known as quantum bits (qubits), which can represent a multitude of states, whereas traditional computers work on binary circuits, which only have two states (0 or 1). Very basic computers made up of only a few or handful of qubits have been demonstrated, although Google is working with D-Wave Systems [4] to produce a quantum computer with 512 qubits.

Another problem is the cost. Anything with the name "quantum" attached has been traditionally very expensive to create and involves very large, specialized equipment. On top of this, most of the world doesn't seem to think it yet needs quantum computers. Crypto giant Bruce Schneier said as much (and more) in his infamous 2008 post on the topic [5]. Bruce correctly stated that the weakest part of any existing crypto system is not the cryptography ciphers, but everything around it.

When quantum computing really gets going, it will probably create a security crater with existing traditional public key ciphers. You see, most of today's public key cryptography (Diffie-Hellman [6], RSA [7], ECC [8], and so on) protects users only because large prime numbers are very hard to factor (known as the discrete logarithm problem). Most quantum scientists believe that quantum computers will be able to quickly factor large prime numbers.

When this happens, every enciphered communication's pathway that depends on public key encryption for its protection will be broken [9]. To be clear, quantum computers can best break public (asymmetric) ciphers that rely on the discrete logarithm problem. It can't as easily break traditional symmetric ciphers, such as AES. But asymmetric ciphers are most often used to pass around the (the supposedly secret) symmetric keys. By breaking the asymmetric cipher, the secret key becomes public.

When quantum computers finally break traditional asymmetric ciphers (assuming this hasn't been done already), one of the best protections will be quantum encryption. Other ciphers might be as resilient against quantum cipher hacking, but quantum's "fuzzy entanglement" property offers an awesome defense: If an unauthorized party observes the protected data while it's being transmitted, the photon pairs change in such a way as to make the protected message still unreadable, and the authorized parties will know that an unauthorized attempt was made.

If this sounds implausible, bone up on your quantum mechanics. It will blow your mind and hurt your head.

The race for the qubit

It is this coming quantum war -- quantum for good or evil? -- that has many of the world's top scientists working on quantum computing and encryption.

I recently talked with one of its warriors, Dr. Duncan Earl, founder and CTO of Qubitekk [10]. After 20 years with Oak Ridge National Laboratories, he formed Qubitekk (formerly known as GridCOM Technologies) two years ago.

Qubitekk has two strategies. One is to make cheaper and more elegant quantum computing components and systems. To that end, anyone can buy the company's QES1 unit, which at 8 inches is capable of creating 10,000 entangled photons (the basic building blocks of quantum computing) per second per millwatt. This portable, plug-and-play device can put quantum particles into the hands of any user, whereas it once took very large machinery and a huge lab.

Dr. Earl was circumspect about his QES1 device: "I'm sure one day these devices will be much smaller and cheaper, and we will laugh about what we have now. But for now it's a big jump over what we used to have to work with."

"Cheaper" is a relative term. We won't be buying these for our kids for Christmas (yet). I didn't ask Dr. Earl about exact costs, but he indicated it was well within the price range for national laboratories, universities, and industrial companies.

Qubitekk's long-range plans involve making more plug-and-play quantum computer components and creating systems that allow wide-scale use over large geographic ranges. Most quantum networks are simple point-to-point networks, but Qubitekk has figured out how to create distributed spoke-and-wheel networks with many, many participating nodes. Dr. Earl discussed how his products could be applied to a power company with hundreds of thousands of wireless smart meters distributed over hundreds of miles.

I started my interview as my typical overly critical self, but I came away trusting Dr. Earl and his company's vision. I've talked to a lot of vendors over the years, mostly about selling their product, but Dr. Earl's honest explanations of the technology and its challenges was impressive. He excited me about what could be accomplished now. If I could afford it, I'd buy one or two of those QES1 units immediately and start playing with them.

I ended my conversation with Dr. Earl asking why he was building quantum computing components when most of the market he was trying to appeal to didn't have the need yet. After all, traditional crypto works perfectly well for most industries.

"I agree, traditional cryptography is fine for the moment," Dr. Earl responded. "But one day public key ciphers will fall, and when that day happens, we're going to need quantum cryptography to protect us. We are starting to look at the real problems and how to integrate and produce real solutions. Many industries are going to need quantum protection earlier than others, and when they do we want to be one of the solutions."

This story, "The quantum cryptography arms race has begun [11]," was originally published at [12]. Keep up on the latest developments in network security [13] and read more of Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog [14] at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter [15].

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