Battelle scientists and their colleagues from ID Quantique are using quantum key distribution (QKD) to ensure safer data transmission.
Encryption technology is based in part on difficult mathematical problems, problems such as factoring large numbers that are nearly unsolvable when one tries to work backward. Current technology is called public key encryption—using one public key to encrypt the data, and a private key to decrypt the information after it is transmitted.
But computers are becoming more powerful every day, and as quantum computing emerges, breaking the code of these encrypted keys will come faster and easier. In addition, there are tools that can be affixed to fiber optic lines that can siphon the information that is being transmitted.
To combat this, new ways to protect that information must be developed, and Battelle scientists believe that at least part of it involves using QKD.
“The day of supercomputers breaking keys that encrypt data is on the near horizon,” said Lee Ann Schwope, Vice President of Commercial and International Markets for Battelle’s National Security Global Business. “The data is too important—we must stay a step ahead in order to protect it.”
For the process of data encryption to work, there must be a Rosetta Stone—a key to translate the message. Instead of a difficult algorithm to protect the key, QKD fires photons through fiber optic lines that have specific properties, such as precise polarization. That way the sender can send information to the receiver and the two can compare notes on a random sample of the transmission to determine if the data is received as intended. If a third party tries to intercept or eavesdrop on that transmission, they will disrupt the properties of the photons and the sender and receiver will know there’s an attempted theft.
While products based on this technology are already being used by banks and governments in Europe—especially Switzerland, where ID Quantique operates—they have not been deployed in a permanent, commercially-funded way in the United States. Battelle, with the help of ID Quantique, is in the process of establishing a link between its headquarters in Columbus and a second office in nearby Dublin, Ohio, approximately 12 miles away.
“This installation will mark a milestone in bringing COTS-based QKD products to the U.S. market” said ID Quantique CEO and co-founder Gregoire Ribordy. “Our partnership with Battelle will allow us to further develop our QKD technology in ways required by the U.S., such as bridging distances greater than our current limit of 100 kilometers.”
Because photons won’t travel great distances over fiber optics lines, the data must be sent station-to-station through quantum regenerators that serve as “trusted nodes.” These are based on quantum key system hardware manufactured by ID Quantique that will enable the two companies to bridge longer distances of several hundred kilometers. The data also is normally sent over two fibers, but Battelle is working on a solution using only one fiber optic cable.
Once that connection between headquarters and the Dublin office is established, the plan calls for new transmission lines to be established between Battelle’s main headquarters and other Ohio locations, then to a Battelle facility in Washington D.C. Eventually, Battelle plans to connect all its U.S. locations to the safe infrastructure.
While working on the classic solution of quantum regenerators, Battelle also has an eye on the quantum solution. In the future, quantum repeaters will come online to make transmission possible over longer distances. Battelle is working with the University of Geneva on this technology, but that’s more than 10 years in the future—for now, initial steps must be taken to start the process of safer information transfer.
For more information, visit www.battelle.org.