Quantum cryptography working with Australian company to secure ballots in Swiss election

Advanced form of cryptography uses photons to exchange encryption keys

Swiss officials are using quantum cryptography technology to protect voting ballots cast in the Geneva region of Switzerland during parliamentary elections to be held October 21, marking the first time this type of advanced encryption will be used for election protection purposes.

Still considered an area of advanced research, quantum cryptography uses photons to carry encryption keys to secure communications over fiber-optic lines and can automatically detect if anyone is trying to eavesdrop on a communications stream. For the Swiss ballot-collection process, the quantum cryptography system made by id Quantique will be used to secure the link between the central ballot-counting station in downtown Geneva and a government data center in the suburbs.

"We would like to provide optimal security conditions for the work of counting the ballots," said Robert Hensler, the Geneva State Chancellor, in a statement issued today. "In this context, the value added by quantum cryptography concerns not so much protection from outside attempts to interfere as the ability to verify that the data have not been corrupted in transit between entry and storage."

The use of quantum cryptography in the voting process will showcase technology developed in Switzerland. The firm id Quantique, grew out of research done at the University of Geneva by Professor Nicolas Gisin and his team back in the mid-1990s.

According to id Quantique's CEO Gregoire Ribordy, the firm's Cerberis product, developed in collaboration with Australian company Senetas, will be used for the point-to-point encryption of ballot information sent over a telecommunications line from the central ballot-counting station to the government data center.

Ribordy said the Swiss canton of Geneva -- there are 26 cantons throughout all Switzerland -- has about 200,000 registered voters who will either go to the polls on October 21 and cast their vote, or vote by mail.

"The votes cast by mail are all collected in the days before the election and all brought to the central counting station on October 21," Ribordy said.

"Once the election is closed -- at noon on Sunday, October 21 -- the sealed ballot boxes of all the polling stations are brought to the central counting station, where they are opened and where the votes are mixed with the mail votes. Counting them is then manually done at the central counting station. People counting the votes at this central station use computers to transfer the counts to the data center of the canton of Geneva," Ribordy explained.

He said the quantum-cryptography system is ready to be put into action. Ribordy doesn't think the high-speed link has been encrypted by any means in the past, but he added that the IT department of the Swiss government is not sharing a lot of information on certain details for security reasons.

The use of quantum cryptography in the Swiss election marks the start of the "SwissQuantum" project managed by Professor Gisin, with support from the National Center of Competence in Quantum Photonics Research in Switzerland.

"Protection of the federal elections is of historical importance in the sense that, after several years of development and experimentation, this will be the first use of the 1GHz quantum encrypter, which is transparent for the user, and an ordinary fiber-optic line to send data endowed with relevance and purpose," said Professor Gisin in a prepared statement. "So this occasion marks quantum technology's real debut."

The SwissQuantum project aims to set up a pilot communications network throughout Geneva. Supporters compare it with that of the first Internet links in the United States in the 1970s. The Swiss are also expected to showcase the quantum cryptography project during the ITU Telecom World event being held in Geneva this week.

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Ellen Messmer

Network World
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