The internet, that global interconnection of networks, routers and protocols flinging data around the planet, has touched almost every aspect of our lives. It is, arguably, the greatest invention of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it’s also a flawed one. The existence of a $173 billion (£135 billion) cybersecurity industry highlights the scale of the data protection and privacy issues that consumers, business and governments face when using the internet.
But what if there was a 21st-century alternative that promised to secure the movement of data more completely than ever before?
What if there was a quantum internet that came with a promise of being virtually unhackable?
That’s precisely what the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has said is to be built to usher in “a new era of communications” and push the U.S. to the “forefront of the global quantum race.”
What’s more, the DOE announced during a July 23 press conference, a working prototype is expected to be completed within the next ten years. I’ll return to the unhackable claim shortly, but first, let’s examine just what this quantum internet blueprint involves.
A strategic blueprint for the development of a quantum internet
The DOE press conference was held at the University of Chicago and revealed the details of a meeting between DOE national laboratories, universities, and businesses in February, where the plan to build a quantum internet was hammered out.
Emerging from the National Quantum Initiative Act that President Trump signed in December 2018, the participants prepared the strategic ground for a national internet built around the principles of quantum mechanics.
See this MIT Technology Review explainer of quantum communications for a brilliantly accessible overview of the technicalities.
Already in the early stages of development, the DOE hopes that the quantum internet will have a “profound impact on areas critical to science, industry, and national security.”
As such, it is not intended as a direct replacement for the internet as we know it. Instead, it would run in parallel as a supplementary network for the banking and health industries as well as serving the national security interest.
The full report blueprint, “From Long-distance Entanglement to Building a Nationwide Quantum Internet,” covers all the critical objectives from building and integrating quantum network devices through to expanding the network between cities and ultimately states.
Scientists from the DOE Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, along with those from the University of Chicago, have already created a 52-mile “quantum loop” in the Chicago suburbs. The next step will be to add the DOE Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois to establish an 80-mile testbed.
All 17 DOE National Laboratories will eventually be connected to form the quantum internet backbone, with this working prototype expected to be up and running within a decade. “The Department of Energy is proud to play an instrumental role in the development of the national quantum internet,” the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dan Brouillette, said.
However, as the Washington Post reported, the United States is far from alone in developing quantum networks, with China being the most significant rival. A 1,263-mile quantum link exists between Beijing and Shanghai, dwarfing the U.S. efforts so far.
Nothing, not even a so-called quantum internet, is unhackable
Paul Dabbar, U.S. Under Secretary for Science, said that the quantum internet brings the country “one step closer to a completely secure internet.” As someone who has been involved in the business of online security for three decades, starting around the same time that the term cybersecurity was coined in 1989, Dabbar’s last three words make me shudder.
There is no such thing as completely secure. A brand new and unboxed computer might have had malware installed somewhere along the supply chain, and the operating system will likely have vulnerabilities. Until you open the box, it is effectively Schrodinger’s computer: secure and insecure simultaneously.
The DOE statement is somewhat more sensible, in my opinion when it talks of relying upon the laws of quantum mechanics to “control and transmit information more securely than ever before.” More securely, not completely securely.
Then it goes and spoils everything by using the phrase “virtually unhackable networks.”
A quantum internet will not be unhackable: it will likely be much harder for anyone to eavesdrop on the transmission of encrypted data using quantum key distribution (QKD), but that’s not to say it’s impossible.
Yes, the decryption keys are sent using qubits in a quantum state, which means that if a hacker were to attempt to observe them in transit, then they are altered, they collapse, the hack attempt is visible and the keys are discarded, new ones generated and the process starts again.
Great, in theory. In practice, and there are plenty of QKD networks operating already, it’s the weak spots such as optical fiber termination points, switches and connections that will be targeted by hackers. Not forgetting the human element, be that by way of configuration errors, bad actors or social engineering attacks.
Security does not involve one single point of attack, quantum or otherwise.