Anushka Dhingra examines recent developments on quantum internet and what these innovations mean for data security.
The Internet, a global integration of networks, routers and protocols transmitting large volumes of data and information across the world in seconds, has taken over almost every aspect of our lives. It is debatably the greatest innovation of the 20th century. However, it is regrettably a flawed one too. The cybersecurity industry, projected to be valued at USD 248.6 billion by 2023, speaks volumes about the scales of data privacy and security problems faced by users. But what if a solution was proposed, which made data transmission with a level security never seen before, possible?
Think of a fibre-optic cable, and how its introduction into technological infrastructure revolutionised the communication world, transmitting information faster and across larger distances than ever before. Now imagine these improvements in speed and distance, but far greater.
While news reports and researchers have presented quantum computing as a far-fetched phenomenon, the Department of Energy (DoE) claims that the possibility of a quantum network is well within our reach.
The United States DoE, in July 2020, recently unveiled a blueprint for a “virtually unhackable” quantum internet, which deploys the laws of quantum mechanics in transmitting information across the network securely. While this is a long-term aim requiring the use of newer infrastructure and technologies, the department has started to collaborate with universities and other research institutions with a plan to create a prototype within a decade. This quantum internet is purported to offer security levels which are near impossible to achieve with the current internet, and will likely bring the United States to the front in the global quantum race.
How does the network work?
The foundation of building quantum networks lies in the ability to control, synthesise, and manipulate data to the atomic and sub-atomic level. The aim of this quantum internet is to create a hack-proof internet, which makes use of two primary quantum phenomena — quantum entanglement, or essentially, the interdependence of the quantum states of two or more particles, and quantum superposition, which involves a particle existing in two states at once.
According to the DoE’s statement, quantum entanglement involves two particles which become “so inextricably linked”, that despite of the distance between them, “changing the properties of one will change those of the other”. Because communication takes place instantaneously, the quantum internet would prove to be much faster than the internet of today.
Further, the DoE states that the possibility of a particle existing in two varying states at the same time (quantum superposition) allows for:
“Tighter security of the information shared across a quantum network. Information is encoded into entangled pairs of photons, in a superposition of states— in data terms that means they represent both a one and a zero at the same time.”
The DoE has laid out five ‘milestones’ in the journey of quantum networks, with the first being to ensure that quantum technology can safely carry-out processes which networks of today do, for instance safe data transfer with minimal losses. By the fifth milestone, the DoE proposes that there be a fully developed network of the government, university, and also industry devices/nodes, taking advantage of the benefits that come with a quantum network.
Why do we need a quantum internet?
One might ask, what is the need for a network which works on said quantum phenomena? We are able to perform the most complex of procedures and relay information within the safe security walls of today’s internet, so why the change?
A major asset of quantum transmissions is that they are extremely difficult to intercept as they pass between nodes, making them invulnerable to hacking attempts, and it is this quality that scientists aim to exploit to make a ‘virtually unhackable’ internet.
The department predicts the network’s early implementation could take place in industries like banking, all the way to health service, and also added that there would soon be the additional applications for matters of national security and airspace communications. Currently, it is not expected to replace the internet as we know it today, but instead to run simultaneously as a supplement to these industries.
The statement further suggested that the use of quantum networks through mobile phones could have widespread positive impacts on the lives of its everyday users, addressing the major concerns of data privacy and security nowadays by providing benefits ranging from faster to secure data transmission.
Is it actually unhackable?
There is no such thing as 'completely secure' in the technology world. The DoE’s statement itself claims that the network will transmit information “more securely than ever before”. Not completely, but more securely. This context takes away from the weight of the claim: ‘virtually unhackable’.
While it is more difficult to intercept data during transmission which takes place using a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), it is not impossible. Decryption keys are sent to the recipient using qubits in a quantum state, meaning that if anyone tries to intercept and view or alter the data the qubits are rearranged and collapsed, the existing keys are replaced with newly created ones, and the entire process restarts. This is theoretically ideal, as this makes it ‘impossible’ for hackers to gain any sort of access to the information in transit. However, as observed in the currently existing networks which operate using QKD, weak-points such as end-points of optic fiber cables and connections continue to provide vulnerabilities for hackers to target and intercept. Additionally, the human element plays a role, with the possibility of configuration errors or flaws in engineering or infrastructure, which could fall victim to hacker attacks.
The UCL Finance and Technology Review (UCL FTR) is the official publication of the UCL FinTech Society. We aim to publish opinions from the student body and industry experts with accuracy and journalistic integrity. While every care is taken to ensure that the information posted on this publication is correct, UCL FTR can accept no liability for any consequential loss or damage arising as a result of using the information printed. Opinions expressed in individual articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editorial team, society, Students’ Union UCL or University College London. This applies to all content posted on the UCL FTR website and related social media pages.