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Data Security Takes a "Quantum" Leap

Data Security Takes a "Quantum" Leap

Cyber warfare. NSA. Data breaches. Americans may be safe from someone’s tank divisions landing in Cape May. But that feeling of security doesn’t necessarily extend to our credit card data, a tech-savvy opponent in an asymmetrical war, an unfriendly government, or even a 30-something gamer living in his mom’s basement.

The fact is that if you have electronic data stored anywhere, eventually someone you don’t want will get his hands on it.

This threat has spawned a cottage data-security industry hawking products that may make you feel better, but not necessarily keep you that much safer.

But now comes word that Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit R&D outfit based in Ohio is testing a network built on the mother-of-all anti-hacking technologies. In fact, it’s supposed to be virtually “unhackable”—a sort of Maginot Line for data security.

Battelle is piloting this program with a short network linking its Columbus headquarters with other company facilities in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, about 20 miles away.

The driver of the system is something called “quantum key distribution.” To explain it would take more intelligence than I have and more information than you want. But typical secure data transmission relies on what are called “keys” that are exchanged between the sender and receiver of data so that the encrypted data can be de-encrypted.

Keys are complex mathematical formulas that are pretty tough to break. But the degree of security depends on how much time and computing power a hacker has. It also depends on the value of the data. Obviously a hacker will throw a lot more time and computing power against a system safeguarding battle plans than he will a booklet of your Aunt Tilly’s tarragon recipes.

What makes quantum key distribution scheme different from your garden variety public key encryption is that the sender encodes the key in a single photon—the smallest particle of light. This encoded photon is transmitted through a normal fiber-optic cable to the receiver who uses the key to decode the data.

Since the photon travels at the speed of light, to intercept the key would require a hacker to observe the single photon at exactly the right moment. And even that wouldn’t necessarily work, given quantum mechanics.

Right now the downside of the technology is that it is distance-limited. But Battelle is planning within two years to link its facilities over a 400-mile range.

Right now applications for quantum key distribution appear to be high value data. And the cost can’t be cheap. But most technologies we take for granted now—from computers to air travel—were once thought to be the play toys of the rich. Eventually costs and applications come down with time. Perhaps someday there could be relief for businesses for which current data-security technology has proven inadequate.

The saying in data security is that if you build a ten-foot wall, the hackers will build an eleven-foot ladder. Quantum key distribution adds the element of speed, which may be a new dimension in the security wars.