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Unhackable telecom networks a step closer

Date

Chris Wickham

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The next big thing? ... quantum cryptography could do away with the need for expensive dedicated optical fibre links.

The next big thing? ... quantum cryptography could do away with the need for expensive dedicated optical fibre links.

Researchers have come up with a way of protecting telecoms networks using quantum cryptography without the need for expensive dedicated optical fibre links.

The technique, developed by Toshiba's UK research laboratory and Cambridge University engineers, is a step towards perfect security for everything from credit card transactions to private health records.

Quantum cryptography relies on the rules of quantum theory to generate uncrackable codes that encrypt data in a way that reveals if it has been eavesdropped or tampered with.

Governments and the military are thought to be using the technology already, based on systems available from firms such as ID Quantique in Switzerland and US rival MagiQ.

But until now, the quantum keys to encode and decode the information had to be sent on single photons, or particles of light, across a dedicated optical fibre separate from the line carrying the data itself.

"The requirement of separate fibres has greatly restricted the applications of quantum cryptography in the past, as unused fibres are not always available for sending the single photons, and even when they are, can be prohibitively expensive," said Andrew Shields from Toshiba Research in Cambridge.

"Now we have shown that the single photon and data signals can be sent using different wavelengths on the same fibre."

The Toshiba system, outlined in research published in the journal Physical Review X, still requires an advanced detector that picks up the encryption key in a time window of just 100 millionths of a micro-second, at the expected arrival time of the single photons.

But the detector, which is able to filter out the 'noise' in the fibre caused by the data itself, avoids the cost of laying down dedicated optical fibre lines.

Previous work has managed to use quantum cryptography on shared optical fibres but only over very short distances, with low capacity rates, or with data moving only in one direction.

The researchers say their system can do it over 50 kilometres with data moving back and forth and an encryption capacity 50,000 times the record over the same distance.

Zhiliang Yuan, who worked on the research, said the team plans to carry out field tests on the system but he predicted it could be rolled out commercially within a few years.

Reuters

6 comments

  • I wonder will the technology be allowed in US if CIA can't hack the communication. I heard it is an unspoken condition that CIA must be able to hack the system before it is allowed to be marketed in US or connected to US networks.

    Commenter
    Francis
    Date and time
    November 21, 2012, 11:55AM
    • Big claim.
      Nothing like putting out the challenge now, I wonder how long it will remain unhackable.
      Didn't RIM garner a lot of grief over theBlackberry encryption system and have to free it up for US (and other) authorities?

      Commenter
      Wrongway
      Location
      Blackheath
      Date and time
      November 21, 2012, 2:20PM
      • This article is misinformative. Having better encryption will not automatically fix the security issues that exist today. Crackers always find other ways to get what they want without having to directly break any encryption.

        Have a look at the iPhone, the PS3, Xbox360 etc (yes, these are real systems, with real cryptography) . The hackers that crack these devices don't try to brute force the encryption, instead, they find hardware glitches, software exploits and just wrongly implemented security to extract the information they need.

        The encryption that we have today is supposedly uncrackable (by even the FBI/CIA)

        Commenter
        Anon
        Date and time
        November 21, 2012, 11:10PM
        • Quantum Cryptography doesn't solve any security problems that require solving. It still contains the same flaws that existing security does e.g. You can place a door in the middle of a field. You can argue that the door be made of steel one inch think or 5 inches thick. But either way any potential attacker is simply going to go around.

          Commenter
          John_P
          Date and time
          November 22, 2012, 8:39AM
          • Its NSA not CIA

            And assuming that it is quantum encryption then if its hackable then the theory of quantum physics is wrong (according to Quantum Physics hacking it is impossible to be hacked).

            Commenter
            wooandwow
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            November 22, 2012, 10:32AM
            • wooandwow,

              Yes, I think you are right. I would imagine that quantum cryptography uses entanglement in some way and, if this is the case, then the cryptography itself is not crackable, simply because it does not follow any system or algorithm, so there is nothing to crack.

              Now, the real question is whether or not the rest of the world will tolerate being denied access to uncrackable security by the US, even if this is in its plans. Surely they would realise that the rest of the world would just proceed to implement the new security model, leaving the US as the only country whose communications are open to hacking.

              I don't think that the business sector in the US would tolerate that situation for long.

              But one word of caution. Any system is only as secure as its most vulnerable feature. Even with perfect encryption, it will still be possible for hackers to get into systems simply because these systems are operated by human beings who make mistakes, take shortcuts and occasionally deliberately breach security simply because they are human. "Social engineering" attacks will continue to be popular among hackers and will continue to succeed.

              If you want to be a really good hacker, get to know the basics of computing, but become and expert at psychology.

              Commenter
              v
              Date and time
              November 22, 2012, 3:24PM
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