EU seeks quantum cryptography response to Echelon

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Mon May 17 11:32:34 PDT 2004


Network World Fusion

EU seeks quantum cryptography response to Echelon

By Philip Willan
IDG News Service, 05/17/04

The European Union is to invest $11 million ($13 million) over the next
four years to develop a secure communication system based on quantum
cryptography, using physical laws governing the universe on the smallest
scale to create and distribute unbreakable encryption keys, project
coordinators said Monday.

 If successful, the project would produce the cryptographer's holy grail --
absolutely unbreakable code -- and thwart the eavesdropping efforts of
espionage systems such as Echelon, which intercepts electronic messages on
behalf of the intelligence services of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New
Zealand and Australia.

 "The aim is to produce a communication system that cannot be intercepted
by anyone, and that includes Echelon," said Sergio Cova, a professor from
the electronics department of Milan Polytechnic and one of the project's
coordinators. "We are talking about a system that requires significant
technological innovations. We have to prove that it is workable, which is
not the case at the moment." Major improvements in geographic range and
speed of data transmission will be required before the system becomes a
commercial reality, Cova said.

 "The report of the European Parliament on Echelon recommends using quantum
cryptography as a solution to electronic eavesdropping. This is an effort
to cope with Echelon," said Christian Monyk, the director of quantum
technologies at the Austrian company ARC Seibersdorf Research and overall
coordinator of the project. Economic espionage has caused serious harm to
European companies in the past, Monyk said. "With this project we will be
making an essential contribution to the economic independence of Europe."

 Quantum cryptography takes advantage of the physical properties of light
particles, known as photons, to create and transmit binary messages. The
angle of vibration of a photon as it travels through space -- its
polarization -- can be used to represent a zero or a one under a system
first devised by scientists Charles Bennett and Gilles Brassard in 1984. It
has the advantage that any attempt to intercept the photons is liable to
interfere with their polarization and can therefore be detected by those
operating the system, the project coordinators said. An intercepted key
would therefore be discarded and a new one created for use in its place.

 The new system, known as SECOQC (Secure Communication based on Quantum
Cryptography), is intended for use by the secure generation and exchange of
encryption keys, rather than for the actual exchange of data, Monyk said.

 "The encrypted data would then be transmitted by normal methods," he said.
Messages encrypted using quantum mechanics can currently be transmitted
over optical fibers for tens of kilometers. The European project intends to
extend that range by combining quantum physics with other technologies,
Monyk said. "The important thing about this project is that it is not based
solely on quantum cryptography but on a combination with all the other
components that are necessary to achieve an economic application," he said.
"We are taking a really broad approach to quantum cryptography, which other
countries haven't done."

 Experts in quantum physics, cryptography, software and network development
from universities, research institutes and private companies in Austria,
Belgium, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany,
Italy, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland will be contributing to the project,
Monyk said.

 In 18 months project participants will assess progress on a number of
alternative solutions and decide which technologies are the most promising
and merit further development, project coordinators said. SECOQC aims to
have a workable technology ready in four years, but will probably require
three to four years of work beyond that before commercial use, Monyk said.

 Cova was more cautious: "This is the equivalent of the first flight of the
Wright brothers, so it is too early to be talking already about supersonic
transatlantic travel."

 The technological challenges facing the project include the creation of
sensors capable of recording the arrival of photons at high speed and
photon generators that produce a single photon at a time, Cova said. "If
two or three photons are released simultaneously they become vulnerable to
interception," he said.

 Monyk believes there will be a global market of several million users once
a workable solution has been developed. A political decision will have to
be taken as to who those users will be in order to prevent terrorists and
criminals from taking advantage of the completely secure communication
network, he said.

 "In my view it should not be limited to senior government officials and
the military, but made available to all users who need really secure
communications," Monyk said. Banks, insurance companies and law firms could
be potential clients, Monyk said, and a decision will have to be made as to
whether and how a key could be made available to law enforcement
authorities under exceptional circumstances. "It won't be up to us to
decide who uses our results," said Milan Polytechnic's Cova.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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