Quantum key to unbreakable cryptography

ANU researchers develop completely secret, unhackable quantum key transmission using laser beams and common optics

Researchers at the Australian National University have developed, and are now commercializing, an unhackable means of transmitting information that is much more secure than existing methods.

The researchers are working on quantum key distribution (QKD), generally known as quantum cryptography, which uses laser beams that are encoded in a way that makes interception physically impossible.

"It's somewhat cheekily titled the ultimate cryptographic system," said ANU physicist and Stanford Sloan Fellow, Vikram Sharma, referring to a presentation on the technology.

Sharma is part of a team that won the 2006 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for demonstrating an end-to-end working prototype of a QKD system.

The team, which has worked on the project for three years, is looking to commercialise the QKD system through QuintessenceLabs -- a Canberra-based company setup by the ANU researchers -- which has attracted funding from various government agencies and investors.

There are currently two main commercial companies developing Quantum encryption devices; MagiQ in the US, and idQuantique in Switzerland.

"These devices in their early forms are quite expensive, at more than US$100,000. What we would like to do is scale those costs down progressively. We feel with our setup we have a good chance of achieving this as we employ a fair amount of off-the-shelf componentry, as opposed to the other two [designs] where specialised single photon sources and detectors are required" Sharma said.

"So an eavesdropper could intercept these quantum sets that you are sending but they will never be able to reproduce them perfectly. This is in stark contrast to electronic data, 1s and 0s, which you can copy perfectly as many times as you like"

ANU physicist, Vikram Sharma

Sharma said that tried and tested optics and electronics from the telecoms industry are used in his team's QKD, resulting in a considerably cheaper and much more robust system.

While explaining the potential of quantum cryptography, Sharma quoted the novelist Edgar Allen Poe who once said 'it can be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve'.

This may be true for traditional cryptography which is based on complex mathematics. But quantum cryptography uses the laws of physics to guarantee that no human can resolve its cipher.

"With quantum cryptography, we try and harness some of the fundamental properties that nature can offer us," Sharma said.

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