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BT and Toshiba Deploy First UK Industrial Quantum Secure Fibre Network

Thursday, October 1st, 2020 (10:26 am) - Score 4,536
network cables and fiber optic closeup with keyboard background

After years of development BT and Toshiba have today announced that they’ve made the UK’s first “industrial deployment” of a quantum-secure network using Openreach’s “standard” fibre optic infrastructure, which runs between the National Composites Centre (NCC) and the Centre for Modelling & Simulation (CFMS).

Quantum links are often said to be virtually “un-hackable” because they rely on the use of single particles of light (photons), to transmit data encryption “keys” (QKD – Quantum Key Distribution) across the optical fibre. Should this communication be intercepted, the sender will be able to tell that the link has been tampered with and the stolen photons cannot then be used as part of the key, thus rendering the data stream incomprehensible to any hacker.

Admittedly this doesn’t stop hackers breaching the connection indirectly, such as by infiltrating the systems or facilities on either side of the link, but any data that passes over the link itself should remain secure and safe from prying eyes. Back in 2018 BT tested such a link over a distance of 120km and at speeds of around 500Gbps via multiple exchanges (here).

Funded by Innovate UK’s AQuaSeC project, the first industrial deployment of this technology by BT has now taken place over a distance of just 6km (although it can work at 120km) between two research facilities. Previously those locations had to physically transport sensitive data, via portable storage devices, between the NCC and CFMS sites.

Toshiba’s QKD system enables the distribution of 1000s of cryptographic keys per second and its multiplexing compatibility allows the data, and the quantum keys, to be transmitted on the same fibre, which eliminates the need for costly dedicated infrastructure for key distribution.

The network also benefits from Toshiba’s Active Stabilisation technology, which allows the system to distribute key material continuously, in even challenging operating conditions, without any user intervention (i.e. avoiding the need for recalibration of the system due to temperature-induced changes in the fibre lengths).

Prof. Andrew Lord, BT’s Head of Optical Technology, said:

“This first industrial deployment of a quantum-secure network in the UK is a significant milestone as we move towards a quantum-ready economy. We’re excited to be working alongside our long-term partner in Toshiba, as well as the NCC and CFMS as industry-leading bodies in the UK, to demonstrate the ultra-secure nature of quantum cryptography.

The power of quantum computing offers unprecedented opportunity for UK industry, but this is an essential first step to ensure its power can be harnessed in the right way and without compromising security.”

Dr. Andrew Shields, Head of Quantum Technology at Toshiba Europe, added:

“We are delighted to help the NCC and CFMS secure sensitive design and manufacturing data shared between their sites. Our solution can be implemented on standard BT fibre infrastructure and is applicable to a wide range of different applications, allowing organisations to ensure the long-term security of their data and protect it from even the most powerful computers.

With the UK government’s assertion earlier this month that it wants to be the ‘world’s first quantum-ready economy’, quantum-secure networks are vital to it achieving this ambition, and we’re excited to be at the forefront of making this a reality.”

Obviously, this is aimed more at major national or even international fibre connections, rather than domestic broadband ISP links. In the future it’s hoped that such networks could be deployed to help secure critical national infrastructure, as well as to protect the transfer of sensitive medical and financial information etc.

Last month the UK government announced the creation of the National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) – expected to be completed in 2022 – which aims to help the UK stay at the forefront of the technology.

UPDATE 3:43pm

We requested a bit more data on the system speed for all this. The key rate of the QKD system is currently about 1.1Mbps and each encryption key has a length of 256 bits. The encrypted data link itself is running at 10Gbps and typically Toshiba refresh the encryption key at a rate of up to every second.

In the past Toshiba have operated the QKD system with data rates of several 100Gbps (as per the beta mentioned above), but this particular link requires only 10Gbps.

Leave a Comment
10 Responses
  1. Avatar n says:

    Useful to know someone is able to buy openreach dark fibre!

    1. Avatar A welshman says:

      Won’t be long until ofcom forces them to share it with all other isp’s

  2. Avatar A_Builder says:

    Interesting.

    Potentially this makes less secure routing equipment less of an issue?

    But the point of almost all OPSEC is that it isn’t necessary to open/decode a message to know roughly what is in it. The routing information usually tells you enough!

    1. Avatar joe says:

      Yes (for most general content) & yes.

    2. Avatar CarlT says:

      This technology is for point to point links for right now. Key exchange between DC and DR for a financial institution where absolute confidentiality is required alongside real-time replication for instance.

      No metadata involved at all in that chain.

      Routing information can be obscured by using hub and spoke architecture, encrypted tunnels and adding random ‘noise’ to the tunnels to make traffic analysis harder.

  3. Avatar John boy Tamatea says:

    Good yes

  4. Avatar Bob2002 says:

    Isn’t this just very expensive “security theatre”? We already have encryption that to all intents and purposes is unbreakable(as this will be adapted to cope with quantum computers). What benefits does this bring to properly encrypted links?

    1. Avatar joe says:

      quantum computers can in theory break any encryption.

    2. Avatar CarlT says:

      Any computer can break any encryption, it’s just a case of how long it will take.

      The benefit, Bob, is for key exchange. Can’t eavesdrop on QKD.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_key_distribution

    3. Avatar Bob2002 says:

      Joe:

      No qauntum computers cannot usefully break any encryption, maybe you are thinking of Shor/factorisation and current public key encryption. That’s why there are fields like post-quantum cryptography(there is a Wikipedia entry for that).

      CarlT:

      Stating any computer can break any encryption is a glib statement that actually isn’t true anyway –

      >Modern encryption algorithms are so fast that they can secure your entire hard drive without any noticeable slowdown, but that encryption can’t be broken before the heat death of the universe.(Schneier on Security)

      As for QKD –

      >The main drawback of Quantum Key Distribution is that it usually relies on having an authenticated classical channel of communications. In modern cryptography, having an authenticated classical channel means that one has either already exchanged a symmetric key of sufficient length or public keys of sufficient security level. With such information already available, one can achieve authenticated and secure communications without using QKD, such as by using the Galois/Counter Mode of the Advanced Encryption Standard. Thus QKD does the work of a Stream Cipher at many times the cost. Noted security expert Bruce Schneier remarked that quantum key distribution is “as useless as it is expensive”.[1]

      So it’s me and Bruce Schneier against the pair of you …

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