How Quantum Physics Will Keep the Internet Secure

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Thanks to advances in photon manipulation, NASA scientists may have discovered the future to online security.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: University of Exeter/Flickr)

For most people, October 21st, 2016, will be be remembered as just another Friday. Maybe they were mulling over weekend plans or Halloween costume ideas when they noticed that one or two of their favorite websites were down, so they picked up a book or flicked on their television, and went about their day. But for anyone tracking online security, October 21st, 2016, might be seen as the initial strike in the biggest battle of the Internet Age.

That day, a series of major distributed denial-of-service (or DDoS) cyberattacks focused on the hosting provider Dyn took down a huge swath of the Web, including Twitter, Spotify, HBO, Reddit, the New York Times, Vox, SB Nation, AirBNB, and a number of other sites. This came a month after the attack on Brian Krebs, which was made possible by exploiting the non-existent security on millions of cameras, washing machines, TVs, DVRs, and other devices that compose The Internet of Things. While the impact of these attacks was relatively short-term — all sites regained use shortly thereafter — evidence points to a future where these sorts of outages may become the new norm, where hackers can take down any website at any time.

So, what’s the solution? Is there any secure way for the Internet to exist?

On a broad scale, the answer is likely no, at least not in its current design. The Internet is, well, a lot of different things. But its applications can generally fall into one of two categories: public communication and access, where large groups of people access one site at once, sort of like a glorified announcement board at the local community center; and private communication, like a phone line. For the first group — that is, for websites that rely on being accessed by large groups of people at once, they will continue to be at risk. But for the one-to-one Internet linkages like banking, email, or other forms of communication — the solution may come, amazingly, from the realm of quantum physics.

Is there any secure way for the Internet to exist?

In a paper published in the journal Nature Photonics, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have detailed how they’ve use teleportation (sort of, disclaimers below) to create a completely secure “quantum Internet” that will allow for encrypted messaging that can’t be hacked.

Without getting too into the weeds about the goings on of quantum theory, scientists have found a way to manipulate photons so they become “entangled” with another, accomplished by shooting a laser beam through a specific type of crystal almost like an episode of Star Trek. The weird thing with these entangled photons, though, is that their properties are linked in strange ways. For example, if you begin to spin one vertically, the other will immediately and automatically spin the same way.

“When you change the state of one of the two entangled photons, the state of the other photon of the pair changes instantly,” says Francesco Marsili, the study’s co-author. “There is what we call a spooky action.”

While we’re only at the precipice of understanding just what is going on, we’re already figuring out ways to use it. One recent experiment tried to see how it could work as part of the Internet.

Scientists took three photons — let’s call them A, B, and C — and placed them in an unused fiber cable line under the city of Calgary. The first two (A, B) were entangled, to give them that “spooky” action, while the third was placed at the end of a 3.7-mile long cable. Scientists then sent B through the cable, and when it interacted with C — so that C changed the properties of B — the properties of A were also changed instantly. (Breaking that down again: A and B were the same, then B touched C and became C, so A turned into C.) While this kind of thing had happened before in a laboratory setting, this was the first time it worked using a piece of existing infrastructure, providing a test case of what the future of the Internet could look like.

While there’s no information being transferred on the photons — it’s not as if the photons themselves can carry the information needed to produce a website, email, or whatever — the potential that comes with the instantaneous interaction can result in unbreakable security measures. How? Imagine two computers sharing coded information, only able to be read once the sharer calls the receiver to give them the key. Now, imagine a phone line that can’t be tapped into and a key delivered instantly. That’s quantum Internet.

These applications won’t really help prevent the DDoS attacks that have been plaguing the Internet over the past months, but will dramatically heighten security for the more one-on-one aspects of the Internet (email, banking, video chat). “If I use a quantum channel to send you my information, it wouldn’t be possible to hack,” Marsili says.

How long until we can expect this quantum security protocol to be the norm? It all depends on if the folks with the purse strings decide this is something worth investment. “These are all very new technologies that are in development,” Marsili says. “It will probably be several decades for this to become a commodity.”

Of course, after two decades of DDoS attacks, who knows what the Internet will even look like?