U of T researcher sees hope in quantum cryptography

Canada is among several countries researching an encryption technology based on quantum physics that creates decoys to distract hackers from accessing companies’ confidential data.

A new quantum cryptography method, designed at University

of Toronto, uses particles of light to share secret encryption keys transmitted over fibre-optic networks. In his study, which was published in the June 16 issue of the Physical Review Letter, U of T professor Hoi-Kwong Lo looked at how senders can vary the intensity of laser light particles or photons used in fibre-optic communications to create decoys that catch eavesdropping attempts.

“By increasing the intensity, the sender and the receiver can compare the transmission properties and the error rate,” said Lo, an electrical and computer engineering and physics professor. “By doing that they can infer what’s going on with the signal depending on the number of photons.”

One photon, for example, means the transmission of the encryption key is secure whereas two or more photons means the communication is not secure.

“By monitoring what’s happening with the weak signal we can see if someone is eavesdropping,” said Lo, also former chief scientist and senior vice president of Magiq Technologies, which develops quantum information processing solutions.

Bob Gelfond, founder and chief executive officer of the New York-based company, said this type of solution applies to any company trying to protect valuable intellectual property that is typically relayed over private lines from head office to an offsite location.

“Right now those fibres are very easy to tap into,” said Gelfond. “Pretty much anyone with not a lot of ingenuity can put a tap on these fibres and can access very sensitive information.”

Alternatives to using quantum-based technology for securing encryption keys like those offered by Magiq — and other companies worldwide like Geneva-based ID Quantique — are expensive and time-consuming, said Gelfond. Some companies use couriers to deliver encryption keys from one location to another while others use a software application to distribute they keys over a virtual private network. The latter method makes it easy for criminals to copy the keys and both make it difficult to change keys frequently, he added.

“(Quantum cryptology) is a paradigm shift,” said Gelfond. “It decreases a fundamental limit on what hackers can do.

“We remove the human element out of the security equation. Eliminating the human element increases your level of security.”

U of T received over $1 million in funding for the project from various organizations including the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations, Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). An independent corporation created by the Government of Canada, the CFI supports Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals, and other non-profit research institutions projects.

However, to compete with other countries like the U.S., Europe and Japan, which Lo says have collectively put in over $1 billion-worth of research funding in quantum information, Canadian institutions need additional support from government organizations like the CFI.

“We clearly need further support from the Canadian government, private industries and non-profit Foundations to create a level-playing field in Toronto,” said Lo.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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