Researchers created a quantum encryption system that’s five to ten times faster than standard quantum encryption systems currently in use.

Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), a singular facet of the oncoming quantum revolution, exploits the specificities of particles at the quantum scale to perform tasks beyond the reach of traditional computers.

QKD is carried out by encoding data onto photons to create unique encryption keys that are theoretically inviolable according to the laws of quantum physics and, in the future, they could complement or even replace conventional encryption systems. Measuring the atomic particles contained in the data transmission automatically changes their properties, which, as a result, send a signal to the sender and receiver.

In this way, any “hacking” of a secure transmission would be immediately apparent to all parties involved.

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Standard Encryption Algorithms Come to the Breaking Point

In the late 1990s, the U.S. NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) was looking for a successor to the DES (Data Encryption Standard), which was first published in 1977 and is a slow encryption algorithm that had been increasingly vulnerable to brute force attacks.

Twenty years ago, AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), a symmetric block cipher algorithm, was selected by NIST as a successor to DES.

Then, on May 26th, 2002, AES came into effect as a federal government standard after its approval by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

This adoption by the U.S. government has boosted the expansion of AES in the private sector, becoming the default encryption algorithm used worldwide to protect most wireless communications.

Unclassified and publicly disclosed, the new AES encryption algorithm – according to NIST in its AES January 1997 announcement – was supposed to be “capable of protecting sensitive government information well into the next century.”

We’re only 17 years into the 21st century, and AES is already showing signs of aging.

As major conventional encryption systems are reaching their limits, quantum mechanics could provide new solutions.

It should be mentioned that Quantum Key Distribution was first theorized in 1984, but the hardware necessary to carry the process out was largely unavailable until recently.

What’s more, the process is quite slow. According to Nurul Islam, a Duke University physics graduate student, most current QKD systems only transmit keys at rates between tens to hundreds of kilobits per second.

High-Speed Quantum Encryption Makes a “Quantum” Leap

In news that shook the cryptography world earlier this year, Google announced that its researchers were able to break SHA-1 (Secure Hash Algorithm 1), a very popular encryption algorithm.

The “public collision” that overcame SHA-1 required quintillions of calculations, says Google, which would take 6,500 years for a single CPU to perform.

While that may sound like an awful lot of time to wait for a hacker using a single CPU, what if they have enough computing power? What if they get their hands on quantum processors?

Until the quantum computer becomes commercially available, scientists are trying to make the promises of quantum technology for data security come true, and the fruits of their work are getting ripe already.

Despite the speed limitation of current QKD applications we mentioned earlier, the materialization of high-speed quantum encryption systems seems close. Researchers have managed to optimize quantum cipher key transmission to greatly speed up the process.

A team of researchers from Duke University, Ohio State University, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced that they have solved a major problem that limits the development of QKD systems.

The team has achieved this feat by packing two bits into a photon instead of only one. Photons are what are used by QKD systems to encode data in qubits.

Up to 10 Times Faster Encryption

As we mentioned, the majority of existing QKD systems can only transmit encryption keys at relatively low speeds.

“At these rates,” said Duke University’s Nurul Taimur, “quantum-secure encryption systems cannot support some basic daily tasks, such as hosting an encrypted telephone call or video streaming.”

The new system, however, operates at megabit-per-second rates, suggesting that high-rate quantum cryptography is feasible.

More precisely, the creation and distribution of quantum keys using this system is between 5 and 10 times faster than current encryption methods.

What’s more, the new QKD system can be “constructed using commercial off-the-shelf components, and the adopted protocol can be readily extended to free-space quantum channels”, said researchers in the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances.

Read More: 11 Facts That Help Explain the Quantum Computer

Are you ready for QKD? Let us know your thoughts.

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