Quantum cryptography: Making hacking futile

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The Internet is teeming with highly sensitive information. Sophisticated encryption techniques generally ensure that such content cannot be intercepted and read. But in the future high-performance quantum computers could crack these keys in a matter of seconds. It is just as well, then, that quantum mechanical techniques not only enable new, much faster algorithms, but also exceedingly effective cryptography.

Quantum key distribution (QKD)—as the jargon has it—is secure against attacks on the communication channel, but not against attacks on or manipulations of the devices themselves. The devices could therefore output a key which the manufacturer had previously saved and might conceivably have forwarded to a hacker. With device- independent QKD (abbreviated to DIQKD), it is a different story. Here, the cryptographic protocol is independent of the device used. Theoretically known since the 1990s, this method has now been experimentally realized for the first time, by an international research group led by LMU physicist Harald Weinfurter and Charles Lim from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

For exchanging quantum mechanical keys, there are different approaches available. Either light signals are sent by the transmitter to the receiver, or entangled quantum systems are used. In the present experiment, the physicists used two quantum mechanically entangled rubidium atoms, situated in two laboratories located 400 meters from each other on the LMU campus. The two locations are connected via a fiber optic cable 700 meters in length, which runs beneath Geschwister Scholl Square in front of the main building.

To create an entanglement, first the scientists excite each of the atoms with a laser pulse. After this, the atoms spontaneously fall back into their ground state, each thereby emitting a photon. Due to the conservation of angular momentum, the spin of the atom is entangled with the polarization of its emitted photon. The two light particles travel along the fiber optic cable to a…