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June 22, 2015

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Recent debate highlights the importance of cyber security for data communications

Professor Tim Spiller, Director of the EPSRC Quantum Communications Hub and the York Centre for Quantum Technologies, took part at a recent debate which aimed to highlight the increased need for more sophisticated methods of online security, and to explore the potential that new applications such as quantum encryption can offer. Part of the York Festival of Ideas, the Future of Cyber-Security event was organised by the University of York in partnership with the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

With the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones acting as host, and an expert panel also comprising Bebo White, widely regarded as America’s first Webmaster, Fred Piper, a leading expert in cryptography and information security, Colin Williams, an academic with an interest on the human, cultural, societal and historical context of computing, and Nicholas Swift, senior cyber security consultant, the group traced the evolution of our dependence on information communicated online, from the early days of the development of the world wide web to today’s prevalence of online networks across all realms of our personal and professional lives. In the context of a discussion which drew lots of questions from the audience and ranged from the increasing extent and sophistication of cyber criminality to the degree of personal responsibility associated with sharing personal data on social media, Professor Spiller summarised recent developments in the field of quantum encryption and the commercialisation potential of the most mature of the technologies currently in existence – QKD or Quantum Key Distribution.

The basic features of quantum physics that guarantee secure communications are: (i) information encoded in a quantum system cannot be copied; and (ii) information encoded in a quantum system is irreversibly changed when somebody attempts to eavesdrop on it. Although conventional encryption techniques rely on mathematical complexity as the underlying foundation for security, QKD relies on the quantum properties of light.  A key is distributed and established through the transmission and measurement of photons placed in specific quantum states. Any attempt at eavesdropping by a third party irreversibly alters these quantum states, thus alerting users to a security breach. Although proven to be effective, wide use of QKD has been thus far restricted by factors such as cost and bulk of the existing technology.

Recently, the UK government invested £270m in a coherent national quantum technologies programme, covering all areas of quantum science applications and including secure communications, in an attempt to accelerate the translation of quantum technologies into the marketplace, to boost British business and make a real difference to our everyday lives. As part of this initiative, the York-led Quantum Communications Hub and its Director, Professor Tim Spiller, are responsible for delivering widespread and affordable technological applications, such as short-range, chip-scale QKD modules for mobile devices like phones that ensure quantum-secured transmission of information online even against attacks using other quantum technologies. Any such developments will have far-reaching benefits across the public and private sectors, including the UK’s critical infrastructure.

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