With stories of new cyberattacks hitting the headlines every other day, not too mention the fact that the NSA seems to have the ability to help itself to whatever data it wants, more advanced encryption techniques can’t come soon enough. Which is why a team of British physicists’ research into an encryption method called quantum cryptology is generating so much excitement.
It might sound like something out of Star Trek, but quantum cryptology is very real. It’s a complex technique, but it also has the potential to be a gamechanger as far as encryption goes. The physicists working on it claim that the technique is almost impossible to crack, making it the Holy Grail of digital security – if they can get it to work.
Quantum cryptology differs from traditional methods of encryption that rely solely on mathematical formulas. The problem with maths is that no matter how complex your sums might be, if you have a computer that’s powerful enough (like the NSA probably does), they can almost always be solved. Quantum cryptology, on the other hand, relies on the vastly more difficult to crack laws of physics, which the physicists claim simply cannot be broken. The only problem is that enabling this kind of encryption requires seriously expensive equipment that’s only found in a handful of quantum optics labs around the world.
So how does this Holy Grail of encryption work? First, lets review the basics of standard encryption. Imagine that Kelly and David want to communicate with each other over the web, but they don’t want the NSA listening in. To do so, Bob and Alice would use public and private encryption keys that consist of very big prime numbers that create a maths puzzle that would take your average hacker several years to resolve. Unfortunately, the NSA has access to the most advanced computers known to man, and so that maths puzzle becomes a lot easier to solve – it can probably crack it within a matter of hours or days at the most.
With quantum cryptology, that’ s no longer possible. Instead of using prime numbers, Bob’s encryption key would be sent to Alice as a string of photons. According to a law known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the NSA wouldn’t be able to examine these photons without destroying or changing them.
Until recently, transmitting and receiving protons in this way required some seriously expensive hardware. But now, the physicists from the University of Bristol have managed to simplify this equation with a brand new approach.
The MIT Technology Review takes it from here:
“In the new technique, only one of the parties, Alice say, needs to have the quantum optics gear such as a source of photons and so on. Alice creates the photons and then sends them down an ordinary optical fibre to Bob, the other party.”
“Bob, merely modifies the photons to encode them with information before sending them back to Alice. This dramatically simplifies the equipment Bob requires, allowing it to fit in a handheld device.”
Obviously not everyone is going to be able to use this technique, but it’s easy to imagine a time when larger internet companies and enterprises will be able to transmit secure messages to our smartphones using quantum optics hardware, allowing consumers to respond in full confidence that no one can crack their messages. One of the most important uses of this technology could be in the area of electronic voting – the technique has already been used by a limited number of voters for elections in Geneva, Switzerland.
Quantum cryptology isn’t totally secure as there’s still scope for human error during the encryption process, but to date it is believed to be the most secure way of transmitting data ever invented. Not everyone will have a need for this technique, but if people like Janet Naploitano are to be believed, cybersecurity has to be one of our biggest priorities – and that’s exactly why quantum cryptology has the potential to be encryption’s Holy Grail.