While the FCC continues to debate net-neutrality regulations, scientists in China and America are quietly creating a new kind of internet, encyrpted by bursts of light instead of the standard long string of numbers.
Revelations gleaned from the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden showed that even the largest tech companies with the best security were vulnerable to having all of their communications over the web intercepted. The problem with the current setup is that all the NSA has to do is physically tap into a direct link from one of their servers and catch the decryption key the company uses for secure communication. If what’s known as quantum-encryption were used, then a potential victim would know someone’s listening before ever sending a message.
The research and development company Battelle is currently building out a nationwide quantum network that would stretch from Boston to Georgia, eventually reaching all the way to California. A similar project is already under way in China, spanning from Shanghai to Beijing. They’re the first networks of their kind, using the essential qualities of light to protect messages in transit.
This is how it works:
The new networks are designed to solve one of cryptography’s most persistent problems: how to distribute encryption keys. A long enough key can provide mathematically unbreakable encryption (known as a one-time pad), but if the key is ever intercepted, the attacker will be able to access everything. As a result, most modern encryption tools have given up on secure distribution entirely, splitting the key into a public key for encoding and a non-distributed private key for decoding. That allows for easier encryption, but it also limits the length of the key, making the system more vulnerable to brute-force attacks.
Quantum networks take a different approach, using long keys that are distributed across the network as bursts of light. To establish a key, one party generates random signal and the other listens in: whatever comes out of the network is the new encryption key. But what if someone else is listening in? To protect against interception, the network relies on the observer effect — the principle that light can’t be intercepted without altering the signal itself. For cryptography purposes, that means that if you’re using the right protocols, you can ensure no one else is on the line before you transmit the key. If everything goes right, it would mean a perfect encryption system, fueled by big, random keys that are impossible to intercept.
China has taken a giant leap in this area by building a a quantum backbone that’s more than 1,200 miles long, while America has little fiber infrastructure in place. Chip Eliot, a top scientist working on America’s quantum expansion, tells the Verge, “In practical terms, China’s way ahead.”
Complicating things further, a secure network would require relay points every sixty miles, opening up more possibilities for a compromised system. For any encryption communication that travels over sixty miles Eliot says, “If you’re really paranoid, you start to think…how do I know that they’re doing what I think they’re doing?” But Eliot says it’s still increases security to the point that it’s worth it, “You have to ask yourself why the Chinese want to do this.”