Quantum photonics paves the way for more secure communications

Physicists at the University of Bristol have devised a way to do quantum encryption on a single chip – and attracted European funding to help commercialise it, writes Siân Harris

Quantum photonics has attracted plenty of interest for many years because of its potential to enable a range of new applications. One exciting area is the topic of entanglement, where, in the case of photons, what happens to one photon affects another one, even if they are a long way apart.

Prof Jeremy O’Brien, a physicist at the University of Bristol and Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics (CQP) , has used this principle to develop a way of enabling secure communications using Quantum key distribution (QKD), which works by encoding a secret key in single particles of light (or photons). Such principles have obvious benefits for secure communication and are starting to find commercial applications.

As O’Brien explained, “the principle can be used to transmit information securely. If a third party extracts any information it must necessarily disrupt the system so would be detected by the two legitimate parties. It enables security based on the laws of physics.”

In 2009 O’Brien received 1.5 million euro (£1.3 million) from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop ways to put this technology on a single chip – and now he will receive up to 150 000 euro (£130 000) as a “proof of concept” grant to commercialise it. “Previously this was done with mirrors and other components on optical tables. Our breakthrough is to do this all on a chip,” O’Brien explained.

This development paves the way to integrate such encryption technology into mobile phones. This is interesting, for example, in enabling secure communication between consumers and their banks.

“The idea is a very compact, robust and potentially inexpensive way to include security in devices,” said O’Brien. He added that it is possible to make the system asymmetric so that the bulk of the complex technology is at a fixed location such as the bank, meaning that the technology in the mobile device can be small and cheap – ideally on an existing chip within the phone or on just one additional chip.

O’Brien and colleagues have patented this technology with their commercial partner Nokia and the partners are thinking beyond the idea of communicating with banks. “We have firm ambitions with Nokia. More and more private and personal information is going to be communicated on mobile devices,” said O’Brien. “You could imagine a scenario where the device asks you how secure you want a message or voice call to be before you start.” Using the technology could prevent eavesdropping on calls, for example.

As the commercial plans for the technology are being worked out, the ERC funding is intended to help bridge the gap between academia and the market. “In the ERC, we are proud to fund cutting-edge research like his. Jeremy O’Brien’s grant is emblematic of the years he devoted to his research and of our hopes in him and many other grantees, presenting their ideas to companies that may, in return, invest in their technology,” said Daniel Dolev, professor at the School of Engineering and Computer Science of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and member of the Scientific Council of the ERC

“His research is expected to have a significant impact on our future ability to ensure the security and secrecy of our inter-device communication. Its application could be tremendous for mobile device communication and phone users in particular, who could benefit from a higher level of security when they communicate. I am convinced that this project will spur ideas of telecoms companies in Europe.”

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