Security

Quantum Computing Would Make Today’s Encryption Obsolete

Switzerland’s ID Quantique says it can protect data from a growing threat, and China is a top customer.
Illustration: Oscar Bolton Green

Quantum computing offers processing power so vast it may soon make today’s supercomputers look as crude as 1980s PCs. There’s a downside—the technology might also render the most secure encryption systems obsolete, cracking codes in a matter of minutes rather than months or years. Gregoire Ribordy says he has a solution. And it’s selling fast in China.

For the past 15 years, the former University of Geneva physics professor has been developing something called quantum key distribution—a system that uses the technology to encrypt data so securely that Ribordy says it can’t be deciphered even by an advanced quantum computer. “The cybersecurity community must recognize the risks of quantum computing,” says Ribordy, a former researcher with Nikon Corp. in Tokyo. “Our challenge is to help governments and businesses be ready.”

For its first decade or so, his company, ID Quantique SA, bumped along slowly, selling its equipment primarily to academics researching the technology. Then in December, ID Quantique signed a joint-venture agreement with China Quantum Technologies, based in Hangzhou. Sales of its quantum key equipment have surged as Chinese banks, government agencies, and state-owned giants such as China Railway Corp. embrace the technology. Ribordy, who says he’s sold fewer than 100 servers to U.S. customers, predicts the growing activity in China will spur interest elsewhere. “If China’s doing it,” he says, “maybe it’s a good idea to look at why.”

While conventional computers interpret data in “ones” and “zeros,” a quantum machine can store information in multiple states—as one, zero, both, or something in between. That allows a quantum system to multitask in ways today’s binary equipment cannot. A normal computer looking for a name in a phone book cataloged by numbers, for instance, would search one number at a time. A quantum computer could scan all of them simultaneously; where an old machine might sip data through a straw, a quantum system takes in the flow of the Mississippi. And quantum key distribution automatically detects anyone intruding on a transmission, scrambling the key to keep the information safe.

Although the U.S. has long been the leader in quantum key distribution, China has pulled ahead in some areas, says John Costello, a senior analyst at business intelligence company Flashpoint. Chinese researchers in May claimed they’d developed a quantum computer that eclipses those from U.S.-backed ventures; in June another Chinese group said it had successfully used a quantum-enabled satellite to securely transmit data. “The level of investment China is putting into quantum has created a massive market,” says Costello, who’s testified before the U.S. Congress on the topic. He describes ID Quantique as a “significant” player in China.

Ribordy’s partner, known as QTEC, says it has built the world’s first commercial network secured by quantum technology, between Shanghai and Hangzhou. The company says it’s invested about 1 billion yuan ($148 million) in quantum computing, it employs roughly 300 researchers, and it’s applied for almost 30 patents. In addition to the venture with ID Quantique, QTEC has a joint research lab with Beijing’s Tsinghua University, a top school with close ties to the Chinese leadership.

As a Swiss company, ID Quantique doesn’t have to adhere to U.S. export controls designed to keep rival powers from obtaining sensitive technology. Ribordy says it took less than a month to get an export permit from Switzerland. Revenue last year was under 100 million Swiss francs ($104 million), he says. But in China, the company’s fastest-growing market, sales are on track to triple in 2017 and 2018. “Every country has to improve its defense against attacks,” Ribordy says. “China is doing it, and I think other countries should be doing it, too.”

Quantum key distribution has its drawbacks. A pair of ID Quantique’s servers sells for about $100,000, and there’s a limit to how far the machines can be from one another: Quantum computers communicate by firing photons over fiber-optic lines, which become unreliable at distances beyond a few hundred miles. All those factors led the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre last November to “urge caution against transitioning too soon” to quantum key cryptography.

Nonetheless, the agency predicts the cost of quantum key distribution will drop rapidly, and many researchers say it’s almost inevitable that quantum computing itself will spur sales of more secure encryption technologies. The imminent arrival of far more powerful computers means companies will have to be ready with similar protective firepower, says Richard Murray, who leads the quantum technologies team at Innovate U.K., a government agency that helps foster new technologies. “The reason there is a market for this now,” he says, “is to prepare for the threat of a quantum hack in the future.” —With Edwin Chan

    BOTTOM LINE - Quantum computing could render today’s encryption obsolete. A Swiss company, ID Quantique, says its technology can keep data safe, and China is a top customer.
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