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Beaming up

Quantum encryption is more than just science fiction. What practical applications does it hold for your enterprise?

GrÉgoire Ribordy is battling the entertainment industry. Movies and television shows have made quantum cryptography...

-- with its teleportation and other exotic aspects -- the stuff of tomorrow. However, Geneva-based id Quantique SA is trying to sell products today. So Ribordy, the company's CEO and founder, has to reassure information security managers.

"We keep telling them it's not science fiction," said Ribordy.

The Swiss company is testing its quantum key distribution boxes with a variety of customers. These cost approximately $50,000 each and will be commercially available later this year.

When that happens, id Quantique will find competition. San Francisco-based MagiQ Technologies Inc. has been shipping products since last October.

We keep telling them it's not science fiction.
Gregoire Ribordy
CEOQuantique SA

What these companies sell is hardware that provides enhanced encryption security. The hardware uses a string of single photon pulses. These pulses have bits encoded on them using polarization or phase. One box at the end of an optical fiber exchanges photon pulses with another box at the other end. Because of quantum mechanics, those photons can't be intercepted without the diversion being detected.

So the boxes securely exchange bit strings. Those bit strings are then used in encryption keys, with the data being encrypted and transmitted in a standard, non-quantum fashion. This is an automated and secure way to distribute keys as frequently as once a second. That's a far cry from current technology.

"The key doesn't get flipped for one year, two years, or for some cases even three years," said Bob Gelfond, CEO of MagiQ.

MagiQ plans to market its boxes to carriers, as well as government and military agencies. The carriers, in turn, will then have quite secure line capacity that they can sell at a premium.

Not everyone buys this. Victor Wheatman, managing vice president of the market research firm Gartner Group, acknowledged that more rapid key changes improve security. On the other hand, he pointed out that quantum key distribution isn't necessarily solving a pressing problem.

"It becomes a marketing differentiator," he said.

That isn't to say analysts aren't intrigued by the technology's long-term prospects. Some years from now, beyond quantum key distribution, lies quantum information processing with its promise of cracking all public key encryption schemes. The Department of Defense thinks enough of the possibility to have poured millions of dollars into research. Of that technology, Wheatman remarked, "The end results, if and when there are meaningful results, will be very interesting."

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