Network security makes a quantum leap

Encrypted network in Vienna, Austria, which has been worked on four more than four years by 41 organizations from 12 countries, hints at the future of government and business data.

Tim Ferguson Special to CNET News
3 min read

The world's largest quantum encrypted network has been unveiled in Vienna, Austria, providing a glimpse of how data could be securely transmitted in the future.

The network is the result of more than four years of work, with 41 organizations from 12 countries working to integrate quantum cryptography into a modern business network.

The project has been overseen by the European Union-sponsored SECOQC (Development of a Global Network for Secure Communication Based on Quantum Cryptography).

Quantum cryptography is a technique of sending information in a way that makes it impossible for people to intercept without corrupting the information in transit.

Packages of data are sent down fiber-optic cables in the form of particles of light--or photons--which are then received and converted back into data.

If this data is intercepted en route, the intended recipients will see an increase in the error rate of the data received, allowing them to detect if it has been accessed.

In the past, quantum cryptography has only really focused on point-to-point connections, but the network--which is operated by the University of Vienna--has developed the concept by using a series of nodes each with three fiber connections to other nodes.

Speaking to Silicon.com, Hannes Hüebel, a post-doctoral researcher who has worked on the project for four years, said, "The problem with quantum cryptography is that long distance is difficult to bridge."

He added that photons leaking from the fiber-optic cable over longer distances mean that data becomes corrupted while single connections mean that data can be lost if a cable is cut. The Vienna project has tackled the problem by designing the network so that if one cable is cut, the data can be rerouted to reach the same destination.

Voice over Internet Protocol and videoconferencing data is being transmitted over the network, which uses existing optical fiber connections owned by tech giant Siemens.

Hüebel said the network is really about bringing the technology out of the labs and showing that it could have a genuine commercial use, such as transmitting banking and government data.

He added that the project aims to create a viable network using the technology and to demonstrate that it could be reliable over a period of time.

He predicts that there could be "some sort of deployment" of the tech in the next five years but said this may need to be prompted by a major breach of traditional security technology or by a big commercial organization adopting it to boost its security credentials.

"It's really hard to predict when it really will take off," Hüebel added.

The network was unveiled as part of an international conference on quantum cryptography in Vienna. It will operate for several weeks, until Siemens takes back its network.

Researchers at HP Labs in Bristol have also been looking at how they can use photons to transmit data to combat the theoretical threat of quantum computers. Find out more in this Silicon.com photo gallery.

Tim Ferguson of Silicon.com reported from London.