Commonwealth Cyber Initiative at Virginia Tech explores how quantum networks could transform cybersecurity

By Sandra Helsel posted 06 Jun 2022

( Researchers at the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) at Virginia Tech are exploring quantum networks, which are poised to revolutionize ­cybersecurity thanks to the uncanny behavior of physics at the quantum level. IQT-News summarizes a recent article from Virginia Tech describing how quantum networks could transform cybersecurity.

Sophia Economou, Virginia Tech professor of physics in the College of Science is leading a cross-disciplinary team that includes CCI Virginia Tech researchers Edwin Barnes from physics and Jamie Sikora from computer science as well as Nicholas Mayhall from chemistry. Economou is navigating a path from quantum curiosity to quantum technology in her role as director of the Virginia Tech Center for Quantum Information Science and Engineering.

Administratively housed under the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), the center collaborates with groups such as the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative’s Southwest Node, the National Security Institute, the Innovation Campus, and the Corporate Research Center, all of which are investing in quantum research and infrastructure.

Quantum computing is not the only transformative quantum technology in the works. Quantum systems have properties that provide inherent security in communications. Unlike “classical” networks, which comprise the existing internet, quantum networks will enhance cybersecurity and allow a host of cryptographic and networking tasks.

“The implication of quantum networks on cybersecurity is nothing short of transformative,” said Gretchen Matthews, Virginia Tech math professor and director of CCI’s Southwest Node. “We’re looking at new paradigms with widespread impact. Quantum networks will provide access to these new computational tools.”

“We already have proof of principle for quantum networks,” said Economou. “This means that small-scale quantum networks already exist. We are trying to solve very hard technological and engineering problems, but proof of principle works — we know that.”

In the future, a user will be able to securely access a quantum computer via a quantum network. This is analogous to running a program on the cloud, said Economou. Even an old laptop can connect to Amazon servers, for example, and tap into a huge reservoir of computing power. The key difference for quantum networks is security: a user may want to run a program that needs to be keep secret, maybe for intellectual property or national security reasons.

“Quantum networks allow you to send qubits that securely encode the algorithm you want to solve so that even the person who owns or operates the quantum computer doesn’t know what you’re doing,” said Economou.

You can’t measure qubits without dramatic consequences, said Economou. If you meddle with a qubit — and this includes attempting to copy it — the quantum state is modified, which essentially guarantees inherent security for a quantum network.“To test the security of an exchange, one user can send a packet of information as a trial,” said Economou. “If it doesn’t match the information received, you can assume that someone in the middle is trying to measure or intercept the information.”

This anti-meddling quantum booby trap presents a new problem: The classical network relies on strategically placed repeaters to measure and amplify the signal — not an option for a qubit. “You need to something cleverer,” said Economou.

With initial funding from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia, Economou and her team are working on the “something more clever. “The solution, which was put forward many years ago, is something called entanglement,” she said. “We are exploring how to use entanglement to build and extend a quantum network.”

Entanglement is when two or more qubits physically interact to become correlated and stay correlated even if they are separated — like stories of identical twins who can feel each other’s pain or pleasure even miles apart.

Economou and her team are exploring how to create and distribute entangled quantum states — a process that involves sending entangled photons through a series of waystations. The team theorizes that it’s possible to measure (and thus destroy) a subsystem of the entangled qubits. This would allow team members to correct and adjust for inevitable errors and then slingshot the information up to the next waystation without compromising it.

By looking at how information processing all the way down at the atomic level can impact a quantum network as a whole, Economou and her collaborators are designing the architecture that may one day secure our everyday communications and securely connect us to the power of quantum computation.

Sandra K. Helsel, Ph.D. has been researching and reporting on frontier technologies since 1990.  She has her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

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