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Project lead for NAU’s cybersecurity program spearheading post-quantum cryptography curriculum

By Sandra Helsel posted 06 Jun 2022

(AZDailySun) Researchers at Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems (SICCS) are looking to the future to develop new technologies that will be used to help secure information against new threats.

Bertrand Cambou, a professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science, is the project lead for NAU’s cybersecurity program. “The cryptography that we use right now as a society has been, essentially, invented in the ’80s,” Cambou said. “It’s beautiful but it has been proven that when quantum computers are strong enough, they are going to destroy it.”

It is because of this imminent advancement in technology that he has spearheaded the university’s first post-quantum cryptography curriculum. Cambou added: “I want to prepare NAU students to be able to operate in this new environment.” Traditionally, cybersecurity systems use software-based encryption keys to secure information. NAU’s team is looking beyond existing technologies to create new encryption techniques that utilize a combination of both hardware- and software-based methods.

Julie Heynssens, a senior lecturer in SICCS is in charge of the team’s quantum key distribution project. “The most secure way to encrypt data is if you have symmetric keys. It’s not as breakable with quantum computers, like most encryption is going to be in about five years. But to transmit symmetric keys, you have to transmit them, normally, over public channels,” Heynssens said. “People can eavesdrop on that and then it’s not a good key anymore.”
Heynssens’ work with the team is focused on finding a more secure method of transmitting keys — which entails using quantum physics concepts to communicate information with ternary code.
Most existing computer systems use binary code, which represents data using zero and ones, to store and transmit data in bits. Ternary code adds a third value to this, representing data as zeros, ones and negative ones, often referred to as trits. This is allows the team to transmit data in a more secure way.

“In order to implement keys with very low error rate, we essentially developed a ternary method to reduce the bit error rate, and then we use protocols for additional obfuscation,” Cambou said.
In the quantum key distribution process, trits are transmitted using a single particle of light, known as a photon.

Heynssens described how this works: “I take a single photon out of a laser, and I line up its polarization state and I send it through a fiber. It’s just one photon, so any attempt to eavesdrop on it is going to affect that single photon and it’s going mess up the message. The information is encoded in the polarization angle of that photon.”

Using this technique, the team is able to transmit encryption keys, generated using their PUFs, in a way that is virtually unbreakable by quantum computers. The team’s research has led to incredible innovations in their field and is drawing a lot of attention to NAU’s cybersecurity program.

“In the last several years, 50% of the patents granted by NAU were granted by this team,” Cambou said.


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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