Los Alamos Surfs Its Own Quantum Internet for 2 Years
Quantum networks may represent the next generation of secure communication methods, but one has been in place at Los Alamos National Laboratories for more than two years, it was revealed this week. That may bring the promise of Internet connections protected by light and physics-based quantum cryptography that much closer to the present day, where criminals and state-sponsored hackers grab more headlines daily.
05/07/13 2:12 PM PT
Amid fears that state-sponsored cyberterrorists have set their sights on the U.S.'s critical infrastructure -- and complaints that the infrastructure's security is below par -- the Los Alamos National Laboratory said it has been testing a network using quantum cryptography for the past two years.
The network consists of a multinode experimental testbed that has been demonstrated to meet the simultaneous latency and security requirements of control messages for the electronic grid.
"One promising application for network-centric quantum communications is lightweight cryptography for the smart grid, where conventional cryptography has difficulty meeting combined security and low-latency communication requirements," Rolando Somma, a member of the team at Los Alamos that created the network, told TechNewsWorld.
The Premise of Los Alamos' Network
Quantum cryptographic networks use lasers and photo detectors to send messages as light waves over optical fibers or through the atmosphere. Any eavesdropping on those messages will be detected, because the act of measuring a quantum object -- such as a photon -- will change it.
The concept of a quantum crypto network is not new. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has had one since 2003. In 2005, defense contractor BBN Technologies, which helped build that network, added a wireless capability to it.
Trusted quantum key distribution (QKD) networks such as the one at DARPA "lack scalability, require dedicated optical fiber, are expensive and not amenable to mass production, [and] only provide one of the key cryptographic functions needed for secure communications, key distribution," said Somma. "NQC demonstrates a new scalable approach with a hierarchical trust structure compatible with the present-day Internet trust architecture. [It] goes beyond key distribution and addresses other security needs such as authentication and non-repudiation."
Los Alamos National Labs used a hub-and-spoke architecture, in which the hub could both transmit and receive messages. However, the nodes on the spokes are transmit-only, being equipped with lasers to transmit quantum messages. Each node has one quantum link to the central server or hub. All messages get routed between points in the network through the central hub, which converts quantum-encrypted messages into conventional bits, then reconverts them into quantum bits to reroute them.
NQC "can solve new network security challenges such as secret sharing and secure identification," Somma said.
"In this day and age, with network breaches -- whether they're by hacktivists or government-sponsored -- being common, this type of communications protocol is going to become more and more important," Darren Hayes, CIS Program Chair at Pace University, told TechNewsWorld.
Messages on the Los Alamos network "are absolutely secure en route, but the hub is an attack point that can't be ignored," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group told TechNewsWorld.
Why We Should Love Quantum Communications
Quantum communications use "roughly 11 orders of magnitude lower power" than conventional optical communications, Somma noted.
Further, quantum communications is compatible with MEMs-based routers that are being developed and installed in the growing amount of optical fiber infrastructure worldwide, he said.
Currently, the range at which quantum communications is useful is limited because optical fiber attenuates light running along it. Los Alamos National Labs is conducting research into extending the range of quantum communications, "potentially beyond 1,000 km. of fiber," Somma said
The lab is seeking to commercialize its technology, and has had inquiries from more than 14 major corporations.
Quantum Crypto For The Masses
Traditional networks use routers to transmit information across many points, but the traditional router won't work well with quantum networks.
Scientists from Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have jointly demonstrated a quantum router, and at least two companies -- U.S. defense contractor MagiQTech Technologies and idQuantique in Switzerland -- are working on quantum routers.
Quantum hubs and routers might be commercially available within a year, Enderle said, "though it will take several years before the technology fully matures and is widely available."