European-led consortium investigates quantum cryptography

The arms race to a quantum internet is under way – the European Commission is looking at secure critical national infrastructure and member state comms

A consortium of companies led by Airbus has been established by the European Commission (EC) to study the design of future European quantum communications.

The commission plans to develop an ultra-secure network based on quantum technologies to link critical infrastructures and government institutions across the European Union. The other members of the consortium are: Leonardo, Orange, PwC France and Maghreb, Telespazio (a Leonardo and Thales 67/33 joint venture), the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) and the Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM).

The 15-month study will set out the details of the end-to-end system and will design the terrestrial segment supporting the quantum key distribution (QKD) service.

Quantum cryptography takes advantage of elementary particles that cannot be cloned, to ensure communications are not tampered with or hacked into. The nature of elementary particles means the very act of observing such a particle changes its state, thereby alerting the sender and receiver to the fact that the signal has been intercepted, thus halting the message.

In the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist) is currently reviewing a series of proposed post-quantum cryptographic algorithms, which will be published once the selection process is complete. In July last year, Nist announced it had reached the second round in its selection process to identify quantum cryptography  algorithms.

If the volume of patents in quantum technology cited by The Washington Post in 2019 is anything to go by, China appears to be leading the way in quantum networking. On 6 January 2021, New China TV reported that Chinese scientists had set up an integrated quantum network spanning a combined distance of 4,600km for distributing quantum keys.

The European study aims to develop a detailed implementation roadmap, including the cost and timeline of each implementation phase. The study will also support the EC in designing an advanced QCI testing and validation infrastructure including standards. The objective is to run a EuroQCI demonstrator by 2024 and an initial operational service by 2027.

Over time, the EC hopes to integrate quantum technologies and systems into terrestrial fibre-optic communication networks, and a space-based link, to provide full coverage across the EU and other continents. “This will secure Europe’s encryption systems and critical infrastructures such as government institutions, air traffic control, healthcare facilities, banks and power grids against current and future cyber threats,” said the commission. 

The long-term plan is for the EuroQCI to become the basis of a quantum internet in Europe, connecting quantum computers, simulators and sensors via quantum networks to distribute information and resources securely.

Read more about quantum networks

  • Researchers from Singtel and the National University of Singapore have succeeded in coordinating the paths of photons across a fibre network to drive wider adoption of quantum key distribution.
  • With quantum computing on the horizon, multinational aerospace and defence firm Airbus is among those organisations that are looking at evolving their cryptography capabilities to stay ahead of technology.

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