China is building a quantum encryption network between Beijing and Shanghai

The race for setting up a secure long-distance communication network based on quantum encryption is on, and China is currently in the lead, reports Malcolm Moore.

After the various revelations about cyber espionage targeting the country’s networks and systems, the Chinese government is eager to set up some that are – at least theoretically – impervious to hackers.

“Since most of the products we buy come from foreign companies, we wanted to accelerate our own programme,” said Professor Pan Jianwei, a quantum physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei. “This is very urgent because classical encryption was not invented in China, so we want to develop our own technology.”

The project about which he’s talking about and leading is that aimed at setting up a fiber-optic cable between Beijing and Shanghai which will transmit quantum encryption keys.

The main advantage of quantum encryption over regular encryption is that the encryption keys are encoded into photons, which are impossible for third parties to eavesdrop on without measuring them, and by doing this, introducing anomalies that will indicate that a third party tried to gain knowledge of the key.

The disadvantage of a quantum encryption-based system is that photons can’t travel far, meaning that this system that will connect two cities distant over 663 miles (a little over a thousand kilometers) will have to include at least 20 nodes – and they will be vulnerable to attackers.

Nevertheless, this is the future of encryption, and the Chinese government has decided to invest in this cable. If this proves to be a successful experiment, eventually all communications in China will likely include quantum encryption.

The professor and others working on this project are aware that while, in theory, quantum communication provides complete security, in practice that might not be true. So, they have invited the finest Chinese hackers to test it and share the knowledge once they do.

The project is set to be finished in two years, and China stands to gain a system that will allow the government, the military, and financial institutions to exchange information in a way that will prevent snooping from any third party, including foreign governments.

On the other hand, some of these governments are not standing idly by and waiting to be foiled. Also, according to Raymond Laflamme, the head of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, at least six other networks transmitting quantum encryption keys have already been built around the world – one by DARPA and one supposedly by NASA.

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