China paving the way for ‘unhackable’ communications network

Test raises hope of world’s first commercial use of quantum communications on wide scale
Published: 4:00 AM, July 13, 2017

JINAN (China) — A Chinese city has successfully trialled an “unhackable” communications network, raising hope of a rollout of the world’s first wide-scale commercial application of quantum communications.

The local government of Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong, will start using the network by the end of next month, Chinese state media reported.

Mr Zhou Fei, assistant director of Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, the research institute involved in the project, said the first users would be in the government, military, finance and electricity sectors.

“This is a milestone for quantum communication in China and the world,” CCTV quoted Mr Zhou as saying. He also told the Financial Times (FT) that if the pilot is successful, it “can be used across China and the whole world”.

China built its first large-scale quantum communication network in Hefei in Anhui province, in 2012, according to the People’s Daily.

Work finished last year on the world’s longest land-based quantum link between Beijing and Shanghai, stretching over 2,000km. It will be used by commercial banks across the two cities’ financial hubs and by the government.

A number of other big cities including Wuhan, are also building their own quantum networks, though some share existing optical fibre lines with traditional telecommunications networks. The “hybrid” structure might compromise security in some cases.

But the Jinan network was an “exclusive” system dedicated to quantum communications, CCTV reported. The information exchange between two users was protected by more than 4,000 qubits per second to achieve “absolute secrecy”.

The network had more than 50 rounds of tests at terminals in Jinan government agencies and various Communist Party offices. The users were spread across several hundred square kilometres, and the test results were “satisfactory”, the CCTV report said.

The result is a boost for the Beijing-Shanghai quantum network, as it uses Jinan, which lies between the two cities, as an inter-city hub to route messages.

Quantum key distribution (QKD) networks are more secure than widely used electronic communication forms. A classical channel, such as a telephone or Internet cable, can be tapped by an eavesdropper without the sender or recipient being aware. But if a quantum channel is tapped, it alters the information being relayed, and the disturbance alerts the parties using it that something is amiss.

In QKD networks, a secure cryptographic “key”, or password, is sent between two parties over the network, which they can use to encrypt future communications. If the key is interfered with, the two parties know not to use it.

Aside from increasing the security of payments and other financial services, the networks would make it almost impossible for other governments to listen in on Chinese communications, once properly implemented.

Chinese policymakers have been concerned about protecting domestic cyber space since whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of United States-sponsored Internet surveillance and amid growing awareness of the cost of hacking attacks. As a result, government support has poured into quantum research.

“China has achieved staggering things with quantum research,” Mr Tim Byrnes, a quantum physicist at New York University’s Shanghai campus told FT.

“It’s amazing how quickly China has gotten on with quantum research projects that would be seen as too expensive to do elsewhere.”

In a Facebook post, former foreign minister George Yeo described Jinan’s successful trial as a “stunning development”.

China made another research breakthrough last month when its quantum satellite — the first in the world — sent a message to Earth on a quantum communication channel.

“Quantum communication has been taken up by the commercial sector much more in China compared to other countries, which means it is likely to pull ahead of Europe and the US in the field of quantum communication,” Mr Byrnes added.

Switzerland, Austria and Japan already have small QKD networks mostly for use by universities doing research on the technology. AGENCIES