Quantum tech secures online data transmission with new microchips

Supplementary content information

EPSRC-supported researchers at the University of Bristol, with international partners, have harnessed the strange world of quantum mechanics to ensure that online data – from bank transactions and internet shopping to the data used in systems that maintain critical infrastructure – is safe at all times.

  • Quantum technologies create unbreakable encryption codes for online data transmission
  • Sectors that could immediately benefit from ‘unlimited lifetime’ security include telecommunications, finance, government and defence
  • The technology has been integrated into microchips within a single platform, paving the way for use in mobile devices
  • Award-winning spin-out company set up to bring ‘single photon’ technology to market

Complex cryptography protects our bank accounts and identities from fraud, as today’s computers are too slow to juggle the billions of permutations needed to crack the virtual codes they employ. But the potential introduction of ultra-powerful quantum computers, which can crunch numbers at near-light speeds, renders our personal information vulnerable to direct attack from eavesdroppers equipped with this technology.

The Bristol team’s quantum key distribution technology turns tables on the attackers through the development of devices that exploit quantum properties, such as absolute randomness, superposition, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to create quantum secured communications systems.

Unlike conventional chips that convey data using electricity, the new chips use photons – single particles of light – in different quantum states to encode and exchange information, or in this case secure digital keys.

Thanks to the spooky nature of quantum mechanics the result is an unbreakable ‘quantum encryption key’ with an unlimited lifetime. Though mind-bogglingly complex, the security of the team’s quantum key distribution technology is based on a simple principle: if any eavesdropper tries to access the key by measuring the photons that fly between legitimate users, they will necessarily disturb them, alerting the users to their presence. It seems that quantum mechanics gives us a nice, built-in eavesdropping detection mechanism. Since we are only transmitting the key (not message data) and waiting to verify it is secure before use, one’s data is never at risk.

This work has been supported by the UK Quantum Communication Hub, part of a national network funded by EPSRC under the National Quantum Technologies Programme, and is being brought to market by KETS Quantum Security Ltd, an award-winning company formed by Dr Phil Sibson; Dr Chris Erven; Dr Jake Kennard, and Professor Mark Thompson.

Professor Thompson, the project’s principal investigator, says: “If an eavesdropper hacks your transmission, the fragile quantum state will instantly collapse and the system will terminate the transmission, immediately alerting you of the eavesdropper’s presence.”

Find out more

The research, led by the University of Bristol’s Quantum Engineering Technology Labs (QETLabs), involved an international collaboration between the universities of Bristol and Glasgow and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Japan; and is the result of 10 years’ collaborative research.

The team’s first devices used an expensive and complex manufacturing approach, but they have now succeeded in demonstrating the technology in silicon, the same material commercially-manufactured microchips are manufactured in, paving the way for their integration into everyday electrical devices, such as laptops and mobile phones.

In October 2017, KETS and fellow University of Bristol spin-out company, Zeetta Networks, which was also formed to commercialise EPSRC-supported research, were named as the first small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) to be admitted into the TEAC programme, a major venture capital initiative led by BT, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and Facebook.

KETS and Zeetta will be provided with access to a pool of investors with £125 million in venture capital funding as well as support and expertise to help develop new innovative technologies aimed at boosting global connectivity, improving network user experience and lowering the cost of network infrastructure.

Philip Sibson, formerly a doctoral student at Bristol under Dr Chris Erven and Prof Mark Thompson’s supervision and now KETS’s chief technology officer and QTEC Fellow, co-led the recent breakthroughs. He says: “Our research opens the way to many applications that have, until now, been infeasible.

“In addition to being miniaturised for handheld devices, the technology has enhanced functionality for telecommunications networks, and employs cost-effective manufacturing to feasibly deploy quantum key distribution technology in the home.

“We hope to soon ensure the safety of our information in situations ranging from bank transactions to critical infrastructure, and eventually to individuals like you and I shopping securely online from the comfort of our homes.”