British startup Arqit is set to begin shipping unbreakable quantum encryption keys worldwide via satellites in just two years.
Arqit, which recently announced a partnership with US defense giant Northrop Grumman and UK telecommunications giant BT, plans to launch two quantum key distribution satellites from the UK’s Cornwall spaceport aboard LauncherOne Virgin Orbit in 2023.
Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) is a secure communication technique that uses the quantum properties of photons, the elementary particles of light, to encrypt secret keys that can be used by two parties to secure their communication. A technique that cannot be hacked, since any attempt to eavesdrop on a connection changes the state of photons and destroys keys, already works in fiber optic cables, but only over relatively short distances of about 60 miles (100 kilometers) as the signal gradually fades.
“The problem with fiber optics is that some quantum information can be obtained over 300 kilometers (186 miles), but at less than one bit per second,” David Williams, chairman and founder of Arqit, told Space.com. “In a world that talks about megabits per second or gigabits per second, this is an impractical product. For QKD on a global scale, the only solution is to use satellites. “
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However, in the vacuum of space, photons carrying information can easily travel hundreds of miles. A satellite orbiting at 430 miles (700 km), such as the Arqit QKD satellites, could provide “good quality transmission to Earth,” Williams said.
Previously, Chinese researchers successfully sent quantum-encrypted keys between three sites in Asia and Europe using the Micius experimental spacecraft.
But Williams (who is also the founder and former CEO of satellite operator Avanti) told Space.com that Arqit was “far ahead of the world in launching an infomercial. [quantum key distribution] service.”
The two satellites the startup plans to launch in 2023 are just part of Arqit’s solution, Williams said. Arqit already provides a regional commercial quantum key distribution service over fiber optic cables using custom software that Williams said solves the old quantum key distribution conundrum.
“There is a big problem with the well-known QKD satellite protocols that you can send keys globally or trustlessly, but you cannot do both,” Williams said.
Trustless sharing means that no part of the infrastructure between the sender and the receiver can be trusted. This means that a quantum encrypted key can never be converted to regular keys and digital encryption zeros, because they can be cracked. However, this is exactly what happens in the larger QKD fiber networks, which need to activate a quantum signal about every 60 miles (100 kilometers) as it gradually fades inside the fiber. This also happens to satellites when they store the key on board after receiving it in quantum form.
“The problem is that with the existing BB84 [quantum key distribution] protocol, if you want to send a key between London and New York, both sides will benefit from the quantum security of transmission from space to Earth, Williams said. “But the satellite, when it flies over the Atlantic, stores the key in a regular onboard storage device that can be hacked.”
The satellite could immediately send the quantum-encrypted key to the recipient without storing it on board. But this will only work at certain distances, since the satellite must “see” the sender and the receiver at the same time. Williams added that for a low-Earth orbit satellite such as Arqit, that distance would be only about 430 miles (700 kilometers).
Arqit, which has several crypto heavyweights including Taher Elgamal, who is called the “father of SSL”, a widely used protocol for encrypting Internet traffic, has invented a completely new quantum key distribution protocol that Williams says overcomes the problems of insecure compared to global distribution.
“With our ARC19 [quantum key distribution ] protocol, satellites can distribute keys on a global basis, and the satellite never remembers the key, ”Williams said. However, he was unable to reveal how the patented protocol works.
Arqit satellites that will weigh 660 pounds. (300 kg) each, according to Williams, is developed from “standard components” and does not require the development of “any significant new systems.”
“Most of the information is carried out in software protocol, which means the satellite can be relatively simple,” added Williams.
The satellites will orbit the Earth in a sun-synchronous orbit, an orbit over the poles of the Earth, which will move the satellites over every place on Earth at the same local time every day. Each satellite, Williams explained, will revisit every point in the world about three times a day, sending quantum-coded information to ground terminals in Arqit data centers, which will distribute it to users using a secure software protocol.
QKD is high on the agenda of security researchers around the world. The increasing ability of modern computers to process data makes traditional digitally encrypted keys even more vulnerable. The emergence of ultra-powerful quantum computers capable of massive amounts of parallel computing looms strong, raising fears that traditional digital encryption will not be enough in the future.
In May this year, a group of researchers from Canada and the UK announced that they are developing an experimental QKD payload that will be tested aboard the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) after 2022. Researchers are looking to send quantum encrypted keys between the earth. stations on both sides of the Atlantic.
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