What is Quantum Key Distribution and why does it matter?

Apr 16, 2020 · 3 min read
Picture taken from here.

In a world where we deal every day with huge amounts of data, protection and encryption of this data is of huge importance. The art of securing transfer of such data between two parties without third-parties eavesdropping is known as cryptography.

If, like me, you are a product of the modern world and you use mobile phones, social media, banking, clouds, emails, phone locks and so on, then you are dependant on encryption protocols to keep your information safe from thieves. Remember these little PINs we get on our phones while trying to log into a banking site or change our password? These are called public keys and they use the complexity of certain mathematical calculations to make sure they are secure.

However, the world is changing fast and computers are evolving to have more power. To add to that, we now have quantum computers, which use the power of quantum mechanics to calculate things much faster. These quantum computers put conventional encryption mechanisms at risk! Thus, the need of the hour is this: Can we find a way to make encryption tightly secure against attacks by even quantum computers with an eye on the future? That is exactly what Quantum cryptography does.

Quantum Key Distribution, or QKD, is one kind of quantum cryptography protocol. It harnesses the fundamental uncertainty of quantum particles such as photons to encode information into them to produce a secure key. This can be a tricky subject to explain, so let’s introduce Alice and Bob to help.

Let us say that Alice and Bob want to share a secret key between themselves without an eavesdropper, Eve, knowing. Using QKD, Alice prepares her photons in certain quantum states and then sends them to Bob. Bob, at his end, measures these photons to find out their state.

Diagrammatic representation of QKD taken from here.

A fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics is that any kind of measurement alters the quantum state of a particle. And thus, if Eve tries to measure the quantum state of the photons Alice has sent, she would inevitably alter them, thus making her presence known. If she tries to make a copy of them without altering them, she would find that she is blocked by something known as a quantum “No cloning theorem” if Alice and Bob have used the right protocol. And thus, there you have it, a secure means of setting a secret key between two parties!

Once this secret key or an OTP (one time pad) is set, this can be used by Alice and Bob to securely and secretly communicate without the fear of any third party overhearing them or stealing their information.

There are various kinds of QKD protocols. Some protocols require single photons to be transmitted between Alice and Bob (Single Photon QKD). But producing single-photon states is hard, and thus, many times, weak-coherent laser pulses are used in their stead (Weak-Coherent Laser Pulse QKD). A second kind of QKD requires the use of an entangled photon source which sends pairs of entangled photons to both Alice and Bob (Entangled Photon QKD).

There are various missions planned around the world currently in order to demonstrate QKD in space. In the UK, a consortium comprised of Craft Prospect, the University of Strathclyde and the University of Bristol are working on the ROKS mission which will demonstrate satellite to earth Weak Coherent Laser Pulse QKD.

Craft Prospect

NewSpace R&D — neural networks, quantum encryption and…

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