Toshiba claims to have uncovered a way use the laws of quantum mechanics to send super-secure encrypted messages.
In Toshiba's previous research into quantum cryptography, it found that bits are carried and transmitted on individual photons, which cannot be read-out without leaving errors as evidence of the intrusion and, thanks to this property, it is possible to test and guarantee the secrecy of quantum keys.
The Japanese company has claimed for a while now that quantum cryptography realises secure transfers of all manner of confidential information, including biometric data and genomic data.
But practical application requires higher communication speeds. This is especially true for secret communications using a one-time pad cipher - the most secure method for data encryption known, which is completely secure from crypt-analysis.
Quantum key distribution is the process of generating a unique code key that is shared by, and known only to, the sender and recipient. Encryption of the message with a quantum key protects its confidentiality by transforming it into an unintelligible form.
However, Toshiba's new method could set up quantum-secure communications links over fibres up to 550 kilometres in length, the firm claims.
Published in the journal Nature, the researchers propose that the two users many kilometres apart (conventionally called "Alice" and "Bob") could each connect to one another over an electric field with a certain quantum state and send it over a fibre optic cable to a central, insecure location. These two fields would join and undergo quantum interference.
Each user would receive back the result of a measurement of the single photon that resulted from the interference. This information would be meaningless to an observer but could serve as Alice and Bob's unhackable quantum key to decrypt their messages.
Andrew Shields, a researcher at Toshiba Research Europe in the UK, told Gizmodo that sending fewer photons means the researchers could overcome a previous perceived limit to the distance a quantum key could be sent.
"We hope to demonstrate it experimentally in the next year then make a prototype in around two years time," said Shields.
"The work is stunning," added Hoi-Kwong Lo, professor at the University of Toronto. However, he pointed out that it's yet unclear whether the method could used overcome cyber attacks used curently at mass scale.
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