So­lace of Quan­tum

Newsweek International - - NEWS - @owen­matth BY OWEN MATTHEWS

THE NAZIS KNEW SE­CRET COM­MU­NI­CA­TION was the key to world dom­i­na­tion. Their prize tech­nol­ogy was the electro­mechan­i­cal Enigma ma­chine, an en­cryp­tion de­vice that al­lowed Ger­man tank di­vi­sions, em­bassies and even sub­marines to send scram­bled ra­dio mes­sages to the Re­ich dur­ing World War II. They be­lieved their sys­tem was un­break­able. It was—un­til a young Bri­tish math­e­ma­ti­cian named Alan Tur­ing re­al­ized that the sig­nal could be un­scram­bled if he could cre­ate a ma­chine to sys­tem­at­i­cally try thou­sands of key com­bi­na­tions that would even­tu­ally hit upon an in­tel­li­gi­ble mes­sage. The re­sult was the world’s first com­puter. Bri­tain’s abil­ity to read Ger­many’s se­cret codes was a cru­cial fac­tor in the Al­lies’ vic­tory.

Now, thanks to a tech­nol­ogy called quan­tum en­cryp­tion, the dream of per­fectly se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tion is real. It could help free the world from on­line fraud and iden­tity theft, hack­ing at­tacks and elec­tronic eaves­drop­ping. It could also en­able ter­ror­ists and crim­i­nals to com­mu­ni­cate clan­des­tinely—and gov­ern­ments to hide their se­crets with­out any­one ever find­ing out. In a world of un­break­able en­cryp­tion, all hu­man elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be­come en­tirely pri­vate—with mind-bog­gling con­se­quences, both good and bad, for cy­ber­se­cu­rity.

On Septem­ber 29, that world came sig­nif­i­cantly closer to re­al­ity. A team of cryp­tog­ra­phers and physi­cists from the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences held a half-hour video call with their coun­ter­parts in Vi­enna us­ing quan­tum en­cryp­tion, a tech­nol­ogy that makes it im­pos­si­ble to hack or over­hear com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The new en­cryp­tion stan­dard “is what has me most ex­cited and most wor­ried, of all re­cent tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions,” says a se­nior U.K. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial not au­tho­rized to speak on the record. “It’s a world-changer.” And at the mo­ment, ex­perts say, while the ma­jor tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions in quan­tum tech­nol­ogy are still be­ing pro­duced at West­ern in­sti­tu­tions, it’s the Chi­nese who are far ahead in terms of im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The Bei­jing-vi­enna call was made over a con­ven­tional Skype-type in­ter­net con­nec­tion. What was revo­lu­tion­ary: a se­cure en­cryp­tion key gen­er­ated in a quan­tum de­vice mounted in a

Chi­nese satel­lite. And the quan­tum physics that cre­ated the key means any at­tempt to break the code can be de­tected. “Quan­tum crypto is as close to un­break­able ci­phers as one can pos­si­bly get,” says Ar­tur Ekert, the in­ven­tor of the model on which the Chi­nese based their sys­tem.

Ekert’s en­cryp­tion method is based on an ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fect known as quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment. The phe­nom­e­non is so in­ex­pli­ca­ble that even the man who dis­cov­ered it, Al­bert Ein­stein, was baf­fled; in 1935, he de­scribed the ef­fect as “spooky ac­tion at a dis­tance.” Here’s how it works: Two par­ti­cles of light—known as pho­tons—in sep­a­rate lo­ca­tions can be made to pre­cisely copy each other’s be­hav­ior even when sep­a­rated by vast dis­tances. Ex­actly how this hap­pens is still not un­der­stood, but the phe­nom­e­non was demon­strated in lab con­di­tions back in 1984. What’s re­mark­able about Septem­ber’s Bei­jing-vi­enna ex­per­i­ment is that sci­en­tists were able to use quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment to make a se­cret key com­posed of a string of data bits ap­pear si­mul­ta­ne­ously in dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the Earth. What’s more, the Chi­nese team, led by physi­cist Jian-wei Pan, has linked base sta­tions, satel­lites and fiber-op­tic ca­ble to trans­mit the quan­tum keys across the coun­try. “It’s a spec­tac­u­lar demon­stra­tion,” says Charles Clark, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Maryland’s Joint Quan­tum In­sti­tute.

Un­til now, all cryp­tog­ra­phy had ba­si­cally re­lied on cre­at­ing math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zles that were be­yond an en­emy’s tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties to solve. To­day’s stan­dard for en­cryp­tion—so-called pub­lic key tech­nol­ogy, which is the ba­sis of all in­ter­net au­then­ti­ca­tion and sup­pos­edly se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions ap­pli­ca­tions such as Whatsapp—is more com­plex than Enigma. But it re­lies on the same prin­ci­ples. The key that both users need to en­crypt and de­crypt the sig­nal is gen­er­ated by a com­puter and dis­trib­uted to both par­ties. But given enough com­put­ing power, some­one can po­ten­tially crack the key. Quan­tum en­cryp­tion of­fers a dif­fer­ent par­a­digm. “Un­like math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tems,” says Ekert, “quan­tum crypto re­lies on the laws of physics, which can­not be bro­ken.”

Quan­tum key dis­tri­bu­tion de­vices—as the gen­er­a­tors of these un­break­able keys are called—have the po­ten­tial to change the world’s e-com­merce and data pro­tec­tion for the bet­ter by elim­i­nat­ing hack­ing and iden­tity theft. But it’s no co­in­ci­dence that the big­gest in­vestors in quan­tum en­cryp­tion have been the world’s armies and spooks—notably the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army and the U.S. De­part­ment of De­fense. “The mo­ti­va­tion for quan­tum, as in all things good and beau­ti­ful, is mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence,” says Clark. Any na­tion that mas­ters the tech­nol­ogy first will have a “ma­jor short­term ad­van­tage” in the strate­gi­cally cru­cial world of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

That’s ex­actly what Pan has done, per­suad­ing the Chi­nese govern­ment to in­vest sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars into putting a quan­tum ap­pa­ra­tus into space, as well as in­stalling enor­mous in­fra­struc­ture on the ground. Pan’s equip­ment is mounted in a satel­lite called Mi­cius—named af­ter a Chi­nese philoso­pher in the fifth cen­tury B.c.—and is in lowearth or­bit at an al­ti­tude of 300 miles. Mi­cius’s low or­bit means that users not linked to China’s fiber-op­tic sys­tem have to wait un­til the satel­lite comes over­head to re­ceive the se­cure quan­tum key that al­lows them to ini­ti­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the other key holder back in China. Ac­cord­ing to a se­nior se­cu­rity source with di­rect knowl­edge of China’s en­cryp­tion ef­forts, at least 600 top Chi­nese min­is­ters and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials use quan­tum-en­crypted links for all confidential com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Within five years, Pan told Sci­ence

and Tech­nol­ogy mag­a­zine in Au­gust, China will launch a new satel­lite or­bit­ing at an al­ti­tude of 20,000 kilo­me­ters and cov­er­ing a much larger part of the Earth’s sur­face. A Chi­nese manned space sta­tion, planned for 2022, is sched­uled to carry an ex­per­i­men­tal quan­tum-com­mu­ni­ca­tions pay­load that hu­man op­er­a­tors can main­tain and up­grade. The ul­ti­mate goal is a set of geo­sta­tion­ary satel­lites that span the world.

So far, only China has in­vested the bil­lions of dol­lars needed to bring quan­tum en­cryp­tion to real-world use. “The bar­ri­ers to en­try are quite high—ba­si­cally, it needs a state-level en­tity,” says Clark. Ring­ing Earth with quan­tum-en­abled com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites “is a moon-shot, Man­hat­tan-project scale project,” says one se­nior West­ern cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert and govern­ment ad­viser, re­fer­ring to the ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal ef­fort re­quired to get men on the moon and de­velop the Amer­i­can atom bomb. “And to­day, we [in the West] just don’t have politi­cians with the vi­sion to com­mit re­sources on that scale to any kind of long-term sci­en­tific pro­gram.” (The of­fi­cial did not wish to be quoted by name.)

The U.S., China and Rus­sia are

Ein­stein de­scribed the ef­fect as “spooky ac­tion at a dis­tance.”

en­gaged in a huge, hid­den arms race for mas­tery of cy­ber­war weaponry, from viruses ca­pa­ble of hi­jack­ing phone and elec­tri­cal sys­tems to the old-fash­ioned spies’ game of steal­ing the en­emy’s se­crets. In the short term, the new era of quan­tum en­cryp­tion won’t plug the world’s main vul­ner­a­bil­ity—which is not in­ad­e­quate en­cryp­tion but a lack of ba­sic in­ter­net se­cu­rity. Sys­tems as sen­si­tive as those of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and even the White House were pro­tected by flimsy pass­words and fee­ble an­tivirus soft­ware—vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties ex­ploited by Rus­sian-backed cy­ber­crim­i­nals in a se­ries of re­cent, elec­tion-re­lated hacks.

And as for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den showed, the cur­rent goal of most West­ern in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing is not data—as in the ac­tual con­tent of emails and phone con­ver­sa­tions— as much as meta­data, or in­for­ma­tion on who is talk­ing to whom and when. Even in a quan­tum-en­crypted world, that meta­data will still be avail­able. Plus, as Emily Tay­lor, an as­so­ci­ate fel­low of the Lon­don-based In­sti­tute of Strate­gic Stud­ies, ex­plains, re­gard­less of how per­fect the quan­tum en­cryp­tion sys­tem is, two hu­mans still have to send and re­ceive their mes­sages on elec­tronic de­vices. At each end, those mes­sages can still be over­heard by, say, bugging the room.

Yet quan­tum en­cryp­tion is a pro­foundly dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy. If the ba­sic build­ing blocks of global com­mu­ni­ca­tion are made se­cure, “then a ma­jor sys­temic risk to our global in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture, upon which we de­pend for just about ev­ery­thing, will be off the ta­ble,” says Michele Mosca of the In­sti­tute for Quan­tum Com­put­ing at the Univer­sity of Water­loo, On­tario. “This doesn’t mean we [will be] per­fectly safe on­line, or en­ter­ing an era of un­break­able on­line se­cu­rity”—but ar­eas of po­ten­tial cy­ber-vul­ner­a­bil­ity, such as credit card trans­ac­tions, data­bases and ev­ery form of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, could be plugged by quan­tum en­cryp­tion. That could also help ter­ror­ists and crim­i­nals.

“Ev­ery­one wants their own se­crets safe, but in the busi­ness of gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence, it’s very in­con­ve­nient if oth­ers are us­ing un­break­able en­cryp­tion,” says Tay­lor.

What is clear is that the Chi­nese team has proved not only that quan­tum key dis­tri­bu­tion works but that any na­tion se­ri­ous about es­tab­lish­ing fully se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions needs to com­mit vast sums to the project. “West­ern coun­tries could eas­ily fol­low,” says quan­tum pi­o­neer Norbert Lütken­haus, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Water­loo. If they have the vi­sion to do so. “Who­ever con­trols in­for­ma­tion con­trols the world,” says Ekert.

By that logic, the fu­ture be­longs to Bei­jing.

QUAN­TUM LEAP At left, a quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite in Ji­uquan, China. A team led by Jian-wei Pan, be­low, re­cently held a call us­ing quan­tum en­cryp­tion, which makes it im­pos­si­ble to hack or over­hear com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

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