A Quantum Network Could Make the Internet More Secure

But it won’t be unbreakable

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers say they have connected three quantum devices in a network. 
  • A quantum internet could enable very secure communications.
  •  But experts say a quantum internet won’t be unhackable.
A quantum computing concept image showing a bright ball of light, from which flows binary code.

metamorworks / Getty Images

Don't throw out your passwords just yet. 

Researchers recently took a significant step toward a future quantum version of the Internet by connecting three quantum devices in a network. A quantum internet might enable very secure communications, but experts say it won't be unhackable. 

"The quantum internet allows users to transmit information more securely than ever," Marijus Briedis, CTO at the cybersecurity firm NordVPN, told Lifewire in an email interview. "While the data encrypted using quantum key distribution will be transmitted more securely and would be harder for a bad actor to intercept, we cannot say for sure that there will be no weak points."

Getting Entangled

In the recent paper published to the preprint server Arxiv, physicist Ronald Hanson at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and other members of his team linked three devices so that any two devices in the network had entangled qubits.

The researchers stored quantum information in a synthetic diamond crystal. The team demonstrated how they could make the nitrogen qubit emit a photon, which will be automatically entangled to the atom's state. The photon is sent through an optical fiber to another device, which entangles the remote qubits.

In case you need a physics refresher, quantum information is stored in qubits. Thanks to the mysterious properties of entanglement, qubits can be used for encryption. That's because when qubits are measured, a secret code can be generated, known only to the person doing the observation. 

The Delft team is one of various efforts to make quantum computing a reality that are making progress. The Department of Energy recently set a record by preserving quantum states for more than 5 seconds.

"This is a huge breakthrough in quantum science that will bring scientists closer to quantum computing," Briedis said. 

Public encryption requires the two parties who wish to communicate securely to first share a secret' key,' Michael Raymer, a faculty member at the University of Oregon and a senior researcher in the Center for Quantum Networks led by the University of Arizona, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"Quantum physics provides a means for doing so that is perfectly secure in principle but may still be susceptible to attacks due to hardware or operator errors," Raymer added. "Security researchers are thus working to invent stronger encryption schemes that do not require using quantum principles. These may not be perfectly secure in principle but may prove more practical in the short term."

Not Unbreakable?

Boosters of a quantum internet often cite its security properties. The quantum internet allows users to transmit information more securely than ever, Briedis said. In fact, when talking about quantum internet, the US government even used the phrase "virtually unhackable networks."

A conceptual images of what quantum entanglement might look like.
What quantum entanglement might look like.

Mark Garlick / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

"This is an ambitious and brave statement," Briedis added. "While the data encrypted using quantum key distribution will be transmitted more securely and would be harder for a bad actor to intercept, we cannot say for sure that there will be no weak points."

A quantum internet will not necessarily be more secure than the internet we have today, Terrill Frantz, who leads Quantum Computing programs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in PA, told Lifewire via email. Moreover, he said that the quantum internet is not a replacement for or an improvement of today's internet. 

"It does have some interesting and potential added value in some respects," Frantz added. "For example, data privacy will be boosted because you would know when someone reads your data. It won't prevent the reading of it, but you know if someone stole your information."

However, Quantum computing will also advance certain security threats, Jacob Ansari, Chief Information Security Officer of Schellman, a security and privacy compliance firm, said in an email interview. 

"Asymmetric key schemes that rely on factoring large numbers (most notably RSA) will likely be rendered entirely ineffective against a practical quantum cryptanalysis application," Ansari said. "Organizations that rely on RSA, for example, those using TLS for HTTPS in their web applications, will need to make significant changes to address this."

Correction 2/9/11: Added to Micheal Raymer's titles in paragraph 8 to better reflect his expertise.

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