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EU seeks quantum cryptography response to Echelon

The goal is to create unbreakable encryption keys

By Philip Willan
May 17, 2004 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - The European Union plans to invest $13 million during the next four years to develop a secure communication system based on quantum cryptography, using physical laws governing the universe on the smallest scale to create and distribute unbreakable encryption keys, project coordinators said today.
If successful, the project will produce the cryptographer's Holy Grail -- absolutely unbreakable code -- and thwart the eavesdropping efforts of espionage systems such as Echelon, which intercepts electronic messages on behalf of the intelligence services of the U.S., Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
"The aim is to produce a communication system that cannot be intercepted by anyone, and that includes Echelon," said Sergio Cova, a professor from the electronics department of Milan Polytechnic and one of the project's coordinators. "We are talking about a system that requires significant technological innovations. We have to prove that it is workable, which is not the case at the moment."
Major improvements in geographic range and speed of data transmission will be required before the system becomes a commercial reality, Cova said.
"The report of the European Parliament on Echelon recommends using quantum cryptography as a solution to electronic eavesdropping. This is an effort to cope with Echelon," said Christian Monyk, the director of quantum technologies at Austrian company ARC Seibersdorf Research GmbH and overall coordinator of the project. Economic espionage has caused serious harm to European companies in the past, Monyk noted.
"With this project, we will be making an essential contribution to the economic independence of Europe," he said.
Quantum cryptography takes advantage of the physical properties of light particles, known as photons, to create and transmit binary messages. The angle of vibration of a photon as it travels through space -- its polarization -- can be used to represent a zero or a one under a system first devised by scientists Charles H. Bennett and Gilles Brassard in 1984. It has the advantage that any attempt to intercept the photons is liable to interfere with their polarization and can therefore be detected by those operating the system, the project coordinators said.
An intercepted key would therefore be discarded and a new one created for use in its place.
The new system, known as SECOQC (Secure Communication based on Quantum Cryptography), is intended for use by the secure generation and exchange of encryption keys, rather than for the actual exchange of data, Monyk said.
"The encrypted data would then be transmitted by normal methods," he said. Messages encrypted using quantum mechanics can currently be transmitted over optical fibers for tens of miles. The European project

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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