DARPA seeks Holy Grail: Quantum-based data security system

DARPA program will develop macroscopic quantum communication security

Information security systems based on quantum computing techniques are one of the holy grails of the industry but the scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency want to change that with a program that could develop such a system in 3 years.   

The main goal of the new program, called Quiness is to demonstrate that quantum communications can generate secure keys at sustainable rates of 1-10 Gbps at distances of 1,000-10,000 km.  The Quiness program will develop macroscopic quantum communications, like protocols that combine the security of single-photon-based quantum communications with the robustness against loss and noise of bright coherent pulses, DARPA stated.

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DARPA said that the Quiness program has two secondary goals: To demonstrate that secure quantum communications can be extended to entirely new domains, such as underwater and through dirty air, and to extend quantum communications beyond key distribution to other practical, scalable quantum protocols.

"Contemporary information security is algorithmic, and as a result, not provably secure. Examples of algorithmic security include pseudo-random number generation and public key encryption. Quantum communications are, in principle capable of providing a provably secure communications channel. Communications protected by quantum security can typically only be attacked "in transit" and are not vulnerable to off-line attacks at some point in the future using newly developed techniques or computational resources, " DARPA stated. 

The issue is that in quantum computing single photons have proven extremely fragile in the face of loss and noise, effectively limiting the range of quantum communications to thousands of secure bits per second at a range of several hundred kilometers. In contrast, optical communications based on bright coherent states routinely achieve unsecured communications rates exceeding 1,010 bits per second over distances exceeding 10,000 km, DARPA stated.

Successful Quiness programs are expected to present a method for decoupling loss from secure bit rate (such that 10 dB of loss results in far less than a factor of 10 decrease in secure bit rate), DARPA said.

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All critical program areas should produce prototypes on 6-9 month cycles and deliver them to a central testbed.  Such testbeds should simulate realistic conditions in fiber and/or free-space environments through the use of, for example, recirculating loops containing fibers, amplifiers, and transparent switches. In addition, the testbed should ideally be able to simulate realistic sources of noise and loss, DARPA said.

At the government's option, a large-scale testbed may be provided for long-distance, high-rate tests under realistic conditions for long-haul communications.

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