Advancing trusted security for the future quantum world

October 31, 2022

Sharon Dolmans is leading a new project to develop societally-aligned, trusted security solutions for quantum cryptography of the future.

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie.

Our future society looks likely to use quantum technologies to enhance our computing, communication, and sensing capabilities. However, such enhancements come with caveats, in the form of new security threats. How can we prepare society for the age of quantum technologies? And how can we protect and secure our sensitive data in the face of the quantum future? Sharon Dolmans believes that the key to integrating quantum technologies in society is an interdisciplinary approach to ensure that solutions are useful as well as accepted and trusted.

The phrase ‘quantum technology’ evokes different reactions from people depending on who you talk to. Those in the field may view it as cool technology, while those outside the field and those among the general public may express concerns about what the quantum future might bring.

Quantum technology is an exciting field full of possibilities, but there are a lot of unknowns too, which is what makes it so interesting and challenging.

For Sharon Dolmans, assistant professor at the department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences at TU/e, the phrase quantum technology means something else. “It’s an exciting field full of possibilities, but there are a lot of unknowns too, which is what makes it so interesting and challenging. Many quantum technology experts are still in the dark as to where it will be used. So, the general public and scientific experts partially agree on this.”

This potential societal impact is also what makes the field of quantum technology so fascinating to Dolmans, who has a background in business and finance, and a PhD in technology commercialization. “I like working at the intersection of those developing the technology  and those in society who’ll end up using the technology. It’s a technology with lots of potential, but we’re still some way from using it our everyday lives.”

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie.

Quantum technology users

But what is quantum technology? Well, quantum technology can be placed in three categories. First, there is the use of quantum computing for super-complex computations. Second is quantum communication for ultra-secure communications. And the third category relates to quantum sensing, which involves sensors that can detect the tiniest of fluctuations, and would be useful in navigation and in the detection of anomalies under the ground that might be associated with earthquakes.  

With such varied applications, it means that the first regular users of quantum technologies in society will also be quite varied. “The first users are of course scientists and researchers, they are the ones developing the technologies and thereafter applying them in various fields such as materials science, chemical engineering, and numerical simulations.”

Down the line though, there is a plethora of societal actors (such as large corporations, small businesses, and civilians) who will be implementing and managing quantum infrastructure in the future, as Dolmans explains. “All sorts of sectors will turn to quantum technology in the future such as healthcare and pharma, the energy sector, logistics and automotive, the financial sector, and defense. And civilians and society at large will be users too.”

‘Must have’ versus ‘nice to have’

Quantum technology will have lots of potential applications, but Dolmans is quick to highlight that these applications could be categorized as either ‘must have’ or ‘nice to have’. “From the ‘nice to have’ perspective, quantum technology will enhance a range of industries, while also leading to the establishment of new types of industry. It’s a step into the unknown, an exciting unknown. Quantum tech might not be used in washing machines, but it’ll help to solve difficult numerical problems that our current computers might take eons to solve. Quantum computers will add to our current systems, rather than replacing them.”

But it’s the ‘must have’ applications that Dolmans has high on the agenda, and for good reason, as these applications can affect the lives of everyone in society. “The arrival of the quantum computer will pose a threat to society’s safety and security. Suddenly, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to easily hack today’s information systems – the same information systems that we use to communicate sensitive information in healthcare, the energy sector, the financial sector, and the defense sector. In these sectors, we don’t have the luxury to wait and see what happens. Here, technology experts and societal actors need to take joint action now to avoid massive security breaches in the future.”

The arrival of the quantum computer will pose a threat to society’s safety and security.

For example, some malicious parties adopt an approach known as ‘store now, decrypt later’. In other words, these parties store private, encrypted data that they have intercepted between communicating parties. These parties don’t have the encryption keys to read the data. Instead, they’ll decrypt this data using a quantum computer once it becomes available. “With this potential threat to our private data, it is urgent that we can take action now,” notes Dolmans.

Another ‘nice to have’ is the development of solutions for and with organizations in society. “This would make them more useful and effective as the solutions would not be developed in isolation, but based on the needs of potential end-users.”

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie.

Funding solutions

Dolmans is now well-placed to address this urgency thanks to recent funding from the Societal impact of quantum technology programme of the National Science Agenda (NWA). In a project known as Fieldlab Quantum Cryptograph Solutions for Safe Safety, or FIQCS for short, Dolmans will act as project coordinator as along with her collaborators, they seek to co-develop high-quality security solutions in quantum cryptography with societal stakeholders that will be broadly accepted, implemented, and trusted by society.

“Besides TU/e, FIQCS will also involve TNO, co-funding organizations Effect Photonics, IDquantique, and Single Quantum, and aims to engage key relevant societal stakeholders such as banks, automotive companies, and defense organizations. At TU/e, I’ll be working closely with both Chigo Okonkwo and Idelfonso Tafur Monroy from the Centre for Quantum Materials and Technology Eindhoven (QT/e) and the Eindhoven Hendrik Casimir Institute (EHCI),” says Dolmans.

In broad terms, Dolmans and her collaborators are seeking to mitigate the issues posed by malicious parties such as the aforementioned ‘store now, decrypt later’ approach to sensitive and private data. “Just one quantum computer could pose a significant threat to society, so we need security solutions that society can count on. But to develop these solutions, we need to conclusively find out which parties require these security protocols, who are the end-users, and what are their specific needs.”

Such information will help to guide Dolmans and the researchers in their pursuit of quantum security solutions, and to make sure these are aligned with the needs of society. “We need to develop these solutions in close consultation with societal stakeholders – that’s the best way to proceed.”

The path of quantum key distribution

A promising and viable quantum communication approach for a safe and secure society is known as quantum key distribution (QKD). This approach allows two parties to produce a shared random secret key that is known only to them. This secret key can be used to encrypt and to decrypt messages transmitted over a standard communication channel such as over the internet. The difference with standard encryption in existing communication is that it is based on quantum mechanics.

This approach would allow someone using QKD to detect if a third party were trying to learn something about the key itself, because in measuring the quantum system they would permanently disturb or change it. “With this approach, an eavesdropper trying to gather information on the quantum key would be immediately noticed as their presence introduces an abnormal high error rate in the communication between sender and receiver,” notes Dolmans. “However, as of yet, there are neither standardized nor certified systems in place for this approach”.

The roadmap will help organizations to align their own security solutions, quantum development processes and technologies, and as a result, reduce development costs and risks.

To achieve the goals of the project, Dolmans and her collaborators will be working on four aspects to further develop quantum key distribution solutions as part of a unique interdisciplinary project. These aspects are roadmapping, the establishment of a fieldlab to develop and test QKD approaches by building on existing regional and national testing facilities for QKD, infrastructure and architecture to support the use of QKD, and launching a central information point to share educational information on QKD.

Dolmans will be mainly working on the roadmapping aspect of the project. “I’ve got a number of aims for this part of the project. First up, I’d like to determine a common understanding on the potential impact of quantum computers on security for different groups of stakeholders. Next, I’ll be seeking to identify and prioritize security requirements across these various stakeholders. After that, it’ll be important to identify important short-term and long-term technical, economic, and societal enablers and barriers to QKD. And the final goal is to key ways to develop, test, standardize, certify, and implement QKD in society. The roadmap will help organizations to align their own security solutions, quantum development processes and technologies, and as a result, reduce development costs and risks.”

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke Fotografie.

Right on time

Quantum computers are on the way, that’s for sure and concurrently, it’s inevitable that QKD developments will follow suit as QKD will be one of the go-to security approaches for quantum communications. As a result, it’s imperative that these developments are steered in the right way.

Given the enormous societal impact, security solutions must be designed in close consultation with those who will use them in the end.

“Developments shouldn’t be left to only those working on the technologies,” says Dolmans. “Given the enormous societal impact, security solutions must be designed in close consultation with those who will use them in the end. They need to match what society needs, and the solutions need to be trusted. This can only be achieved with an interdisciplinary approach, which is what’s so great about the FIQCS project.”

But is this project too little, too late in terms of quantum security? Not according to Dolmans: “I would say it is right on time. To properly involve organizations and society at large, there need to be meaningful discussions on real feasible technologies. The technologies are in development, and progressing very quickly. Quantum computers are coming, and we need to plan the right security response as soon as possible, which entices societal stakeholders like companies, governments, and universities to get involved from the outset.”

Barry Fitzgerald
(Science Information Officer)

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