Portland, Ore. - Uncrackable encryption based on quantum-key distribution could soon come to a network near you. Two Swiss companies last week joined hands with a trade organization in pledging to create the infrastructure necessary for worldwide distribution of unbreakable quantum keys.
Id Quantique SA, World Internet Secure Key (WiseKey) SA and the International Organization for the Security of Electronic Transactions an-nounced a partnership at the ITU Telecom World 2003 conference in Geneva. Id Quantique will supply the hardware, WiseKey the secure-key repository and the nonprofit organization-which is known as OISTE, its French acronym-the certification and registration authorities worldwide. All three are headquartered in Geneva.
"We believe that the integration of our technology with WiseKey's public-key infrastructure will accelerate the development process and reduce our time-to-market," said Gregoire Ribordy, chief executive officer at id Quantique.
Last year, id Quantique was the first company to begin distributing unbreakable keys using quantum cryptography (see www.eet.com/story/OEG20021111S0036). The initial demonstration used the company's first product-a single-photon detection module-to securely distribute uncrackable quantum keys over a standard, but private, 67-km fiber-optic link between Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.
At that time, id Quantique promised to follow up its private demonstration with a public infrastructure that would enable routine use of uncrackable quantum keys over normal Internet connections. With the participation of WiseKey and OISTE, a standards and certification body, id Quantique is delivering on its promise of a Global Interoperable Cryptographic "root" for quantum-key distribution.
The first users, according to WiseKey, will likely be governments, banks and financial institutions seeking to archive sensitive information over uncrackable communications lines. Interest from advocates of electronic voting is also high, the company said, because any attempt to tamper or eavesdrop on a quantum communications channel can be detected by the government server using the company's service.
"Both our companies have very complementary know-how and objectives: to develop an unbreakable security system with private-key distribution," said Carlos Moreira, president of WiseKey. Cooperation with id Quantique "will enable WiseKey to finally have a solution for extreme security environments."
Quantum encryption eliminates the possibility of eavesdropping, thanks to the basic laws of physics. Today encryption/decryption methods are only as good as the length of their key-a 56- to 256-bit value that is used to scramble the data being transmitted with a "one-way" function.
For instance, a common one-way function just multiplies two large prime numbers, a simple operation for a computer to perform. But going backward-that is, taking a large number and finding its prime factors-is very difficult for computers to execute.
However, a supercomputer can crack such 56-bit DES encryption codes in a few hours, and the next-generation successor cryptography, the AES 256-bit key, is already being assaulted by code-cracking computers. They have not succeeded so far, but experts say it's only a matter of time until computers are fast enough.
By contrast, quantum cryptography offers the ultimate in secure communications because it does not depend on the computational difficulty of cracking one-way functions. Instead, it creates uncrackable codes that employ the laws of physics to guarantee security.
Different quantum states, such as photon polarization, can be used to represent 1s and 0s in a manner that cannot be observed without the receiver's discovering it. For instance, if hackers were to observe a polarized photon, then 50 percent of the time they would scramble the result, making it impossible to hide their eavesdropping attempt from the receiver.
Quantum-key distribution requires a new type of emitter/receiver based on a single photon for fiber-optic networks. The hardware is slow (about 1 kbit/second) and limited to less than 100 km, but the security they offer would be possible for AES only if it made a new key for each transmission.
Pairing the single-photon detector module from id Quantique with the new WiseKey and OISTE infrastructure promises to provide the world's first uncrackable global communications systems, the companies said.