Security update: quantum security rises up agenda for telcos

ITU announces new quantum security standard
The ITU has announced ITU Y.3800, a new standard that describes the basic structure of Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) networks, as the first of a series of standards on network and security aspects of quantum information technologies. QKD enables secret symmetric keys to be exchanged for encryption and authentication. The ITU says these keys will be secure, even against eavesdropping attempts powered by quantum computing.
The ITU’s standardisation work anticipates the arrival of a universal quantum computer that is powerful enough to run algorithms such as Shor’s algorithm and Grover’s algorithm to attack the foundations of today’s cryptographic techniques. A common set of best practices for QKD network implementation will be followed by ITU standards providing for the interoperability of the QKD equipment produced by different vendors. The ITU will lead exploratory ‘pre-standardisation’ studies to identify emerging standardisation demands and anticipate demands that will arise in future.
“To date, QKD systems have shared keys between two parties connected by a point-to-point QKD link,” explains Hyung-Soo Kim of KT, the lead editor of ITU Y.3800. “ITU Y.3800 extends these point-to-point links to a multi-point QKD network with a layered structure and standardized interfaces, supporting cost-effective QKD deployment, operation and maintenance.”
What is the quantum threat?
Current data protection is typically based on cryptographic problems that are difficult or impossible to solve using conventional computing. However, quantum computing challenges the status quo because these problems are easy for (at the moment theoretical) quantum computers to solve.
Caltech professor John Preskill has termed the point at which a quantum computer is able to outperform today’s traditional computers as “quantum supremacy”. Google recently announced that it had reached quantum supremacy – achieving in 200 seconds what would take a traditional computer 10,000 years to compute. While IBM immediately countered that its supercomputer could have performed the same calculation in a few days – ie that supremacy had not yet been reached – the Google announcement is a warning that we are teetering on the brink of the quantum age and all that means for information security.
In short, all information that has been encrypted, or will ever be encrypted in future, using traditional cryptosystems based on computational hardness is now under threat from eavesdropping and attack by future adversaries with access to quantum computation. A report by ETSI that explores the risk notes that “without quantum-safe encryption, everything that has been transmitted, or will ever be transmitted, over a network is vulnerable to eavesdropping and public disclosure”.
The challenge for enterprises
Quantum safe encryption is a new set of cryptographic techniques that prevent the interception of messages. Some are based on the quantum properties of light to prevent interception of messages; IBM is using lattice-based cryptography which uses high-dimension geometric structures to hide information; another method (borrowed from the satellite industry) introduces random errors into the encryption process so that the output looks different each time.
The challenge, however, is to upgrade traditional security products to quantum safe cryptographic techniques to ensure data protection in the quantum age. This problem is especially acute for IoT, because of the sheer scale and potential long lifecycles for devices and applications. While auditing and securing all vulnerabilities across the estate of a large enterprise is far from a trivial task.
The role of telecoms players
Telecoms players are already heavily involved in the emerging market of quantum cryptography. BT, for example, is experimenting with QKD and says it will be used to protect major UK network routes and Ethernet connections for companies that need high levels of security, such as the public sector, financial services and utilities. Earlier this year it announced that it had switched on a quantum secured network between Cambridge and Adastral Park, which was constructed by researchers from BT, The University of York and The University of Cambridge. NTT is also investing heavily, offering $1 million salaries to top scientists in its Palo Alto labs. SK Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica are all focusing on quantum encryption.
For example, SK Telecom invested 70 billion won (£45 million) in IDQ, a Swiss quantum ICT company, transferring all its existing quantum technology research units into IDQ and opening offices in Switzerland, Korea, the US, and the UK. It is currently exploring practical business opportunities for QKD such as:

  • prevention of cryptocurrency hacking, where it will co-operate with blockchain company Mt Pelerin
  • smart grid protection, in co-operation with SIG
  • data security for patient data, in co-operation with the University of Geneva
  • financial data security, in partnership with Quantum Xchange (to secure data information on Wall Street).

In February 2019, Deutsche Telekom also invested in IDQ, following a cross-investment announcement between itself and SK Telecom in October 2018, which saw SK Telecom invest in DT’s MobiledgeX.
IDQ later announced that it will be a primary supplier of QKD to the EU’s Open QKD Project, which will see EUR15 million invested over 3 years to integrate quantum technologies and systems into conventional comms infrastructures to enable data to be transmitted securely across Europe.
The project, launched in June 2019 by Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain will use existing fibre, as well as communication systems developed by the European Space Agency. In December 2019, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, France, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Finland announced they were also joining the project.