quantum mechanics

China’s quantum satellite could make data breaches a thing of the past

The Micius satellite will encrypt data using fundamental laws of physics rather than crackable codes.

China recently launched a satellite into orbit with a unique feature: it has the ability to send information securely, not with mathematical encryption but by using the fundamental laws of physics. China will be the first country to achieve this feat, and it marks a milestone in the development of quantum technologies.

The next revolution in technology promises to embrace fundamental laws of physics to enable devices to perform operations that are beyond the bounds of current electronics. The potential of quantum computers to tackle some of the most complex mathematical problems is very exciting. But information security provided by quantum communications could be just as important.

Our society relies heavily on digital communications. In the last three years, we sent more information through the internet than had been communicated in the whole of human history before this period. A large proportion of this data is sensitive and we often want to keep it from prying eyes.

But how can we trust communications over the internet when it relies on data travelling down chains of potentially unknown computers? Taking a place on one of these chains and snooping on the data as it passes by seems all too easy.

The current solution to this communications challenge is to use complex mathematics in a series of algorithms known as public key cryptography. But the increasing power of computers and ingenuity of hackers is opening up more and more cracks in this mathematical armour.

An ideal solution to this problem would provide provable information security, guaranteeing the safety of our personal information. This is where quantum physics steps in.

Laser technology

Light circuits. Jonathan Roberts/Lancaster University, Author provided
Light circuits. Jonathan Roberts/Lancaster University, Author provided

The technology on board China’s new satellite is simple in design and almost magical in operation. A special crystal divides a laser into two beams that are then directed to independent receiving stations on Earth. These beams share a property of quantum mechanics known as entanglement, which links them together even when they are far apart. Actions performed on one beam will also affect the other beam.

The trick to secure communications lies in this odd relationship between the two beams. The link is used to send random data from one receiving station to the other. This data can be collected and used, essentially as a complex password, to encrypt data sent over a public channel such as the internet. This method of communications was invented by a famous quantum physicist, Artur Ekert.

Crucially, it is proven to be secure against eavesdropping and hacking. Quantum physics cannot be cheated, tricked or reverse engineered, unlike the complex mathematics of conventional cryptography.

China’s new satellite is an important step towards truly secure communications, as it allows quantum data to be sent over extreme distances between any two locations. At the moment, with just one satellite, the technology’s capabilities are limited, but it is easy to see how it will scale up as more satellites are launched and performance improves.

The next important piece to this puzzle lies at the opposite end of the length scale. The majority of communications flow along chains, and the strength of a chain is only as good as its weakest link.

For practical quantum communications we need devices integrated into our computers and smartphones that exchange data in a similar way to the quantum satellite. These devices are thankfully just around the corner. In a few years we may look back on digital eavesdropping and massive information breaches from databases as a problem buried in the past.

Robert Young, Reader of Quantum Information, Lancaster University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.