By 2020, Commercial Vendors Will Offer Quantum Encryption

From the cover of Physics World magazine, March 2013

From the cover of Physics World magazine, March 2013

One of the major problems with challenging the surveillance state is that it is extremely difficult to prove legally that you have been under surveillance. The only people able to prove it are the government themselves, or (in highly unusual cases) people to whom the government has accidentally disclosed that they are under surveillance.

What if, then, there were a commercially available solution that was able to prove that you were under surveillance, and that changed encryption keys so rapidly that your data could be vulnerable at most for a few seconds before becoming secure again? This is the promise of quantum encryption systems.

In theory, high volumes of data could be transmitted in short bursts of light, and photons could encode an encryption key; then, if the data were observed in transit, the mere fact of observation would change the data, leaving an indelible proof that it had been observed. Previously, quantum test networks have had to establish trust between every sending and receiving computer on a network, making quantum encryption an impractical solution for real-time data transmission. Now, however, The Verge reports that the Los Alamos National Laboratory has had an actual quantum-encrypted server up and running for the last two-and-a-half years, designed to provide security for the electrical grid. It solves the trust problem by having one central, relatively secure computer handle the distribution of the quantum keys to the sending and receiving computers in the network. For small, hub-and-spoke computer systems, this configuration will enable a much higher level of security, once it gets to market.

The implications for activists are dizzying. With current encrypted activist communication systems like the Friends of Wikileaks, the user is required to use a lengthy encryption key on login which regularly expires. This makes it very difficult for all but the most disciplined and committed activists to remain in touch over long periods. A system like that at Los Alamos would take that burden off the individual activist. However, the security of the Los Alamos system depends on the security of the central server computer. The end point for this technology is one that has not yet been reached: achieving genuine, convenient, peer-to-peer real-time encryption using quantum encryption keys. If that kind of system ever becomes available to the public, it will make routine, unobtrusive digital surveillance much harder.

Though, to be fair, not all surveillance:

 

XKCD_security

 

Of course, if quantum encryption were ever perfected, it would cut both ways. Governments would also be able to keep their own communications permanently secret and unleakable. But I would prefer a future society where both governments and the people have access to unbreakable encryption, to a society where the government shields itself from scrutiny, while scrutinizing the public with ever-greater intensity in the name of “national security.”

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