why and how we’re building and securing the quantum internet
Quantum isn’t just a word used by companies to make themselves and their products sound futuristic, or a buzzword employed by post-modernist woo peddlers to justify pseudoscience. It’s a very real field of study and engineering which will one day lead to an extremely fast and very secure internet, and its building blocks are already being laid. Lasers and fiber optic cables are being prepared to stream massive amounts of encoded data only the intended recipients can view to the consternation of government spies and hackers who’ll need to figure out new ways of spying on their targets, and the delight of financial tech companies and militaries, which would be using a communication network where security is the whole point, not an extra layer, which is the problem with internet security today.
You see, the internet we all use today was built for one reason: to exchange information as quickly and easily as possible. While it can trace its origins to military labs, the user friendly iteration was designed by academics to share scientific data with other academics and curate the vast amounts of data locked in their computers and countless disks. Today we exchange private messages with each other, shop, do our banking, and back up our sensitive data on a galaxy of interconnected servers after the web was monetized and turned into businesses that changed the world as we know it. All of that required encryption and security which had to be tacked on to a system not really meant to be secure in the first place.
And this is where the quantum internet comes in. Exchanging data using entangled photons, i.e. particles of light tied into a single system so whatever happens to one particle happens to the other through mechanisms we’re still trying to learn, inherently makes it impossible to spy on the actual transmission of the message since the message is the overall state of the system and an attempt to prod that state externally would disrupt the system, making the attempt obvious and corrupting the message in the process. So all your secure online actions using quantum states to establish a one time key exchanged only between two parties, then taking advantage of the laws of physics tamper-proofing your connection, would be a huge step up from where we are today when it comes to using the web safely. It would still be possible to set up man-in-the-middle-attacks, but that would now require specialized tools, not just the capability to passively eavesdrop and intercept data.
can you sabotage the quantum internet?
But all these glowing write ups about our quantum online future have some researchers asking if there may be a way to bring it all crashing down, and one team thinks they found how as few as three attackers could paralyze an entire global quantum network. The issue is that a quantum internet could be described by a function tracking the entanglement of all the bits of data in the system. By injecting random noise, attackers could scramble that data, making it impossible to figure out how to retrieve the encoded information, which relies on knowing which particles are entangled with each other and how. With random noise polluting the system, complicated and sprawling quantum states would now be in chaos, the bad data spreading across the network, leaving nothing but digital deutris in its wake.
It’s basically an apocalyptic ransomware attack enabled by the laws of physics. So, does this mean that a secure quantum internet we can all use is dead in the water since it will be so easy to hobble? Well, no. You shouldn’t worry about the it being frozen in its tracks by this idea because there’s a good reason this attack is only hypothetical. It’s unrealistic. It would require the whole internet to be in a quantum state of its own, a swarm of trillions of trillions of trillions of entangled photons delicately manipulated to retrieve the right bits of data at the right time.
But if we did that, we’d have to effectively scrap all of the internet as we know it today because it’s actually just a very large, distributed collection of nodes and several agreed-upon protocols for moving data between and through those nodes. Quantum would just be another protocol on top of it, with classical nodes still routing traffic as they do today because that’s the easiest and best way to upgrade the web instead of just starting from scratch as if the last half century of computing didn’t happen.
what role will quantum mechanics play in a quantum internet?
Consider that the baseline protocol of the web is UDP, a completely unreliable stream of data packets that only tell you whether you got the whole message or parts of it. A step up from the basic “here’s your data, or most of it, I think” interaction, is TCP/IP, which also sends streams of data, but before it does, it checks if the connection was established and then makes sure that all the data meant to be transmitted was delivered. HTTP builds on top of that to also tell servers a lot more about what they’re supposed to do with that data, sending requests and bringing back a response with the desired data in the desired state, or a confirmation that the request has been processed, and how successfully.
In this scheme of things, quantum is like an advanced version of HTTPS, the secure version of the HTTP protocol. It builds on what we know about sending data packets and encodes them in a way that makes it extremely difficult to snoop on the byte stream in practice. We’d still need routers, servers, and all the other trappings of classical internet infrastructure to make it work, so the hypothetical exploit in question would be limited to a single node which can be reset to the last valid quantum state, instead of spreading across the entire network. But while it’s hardly going to be devastating, it does limit what we can do when it comes to dealing with quantum data not only to prevent eavesdropping but also counter straight up sabotage.
For the typical end user, it’s unlikely that anything will outwardly change. The internet might get a little faster but overall, the day to day experience of using it would be the same. Web sites will come up the same way they do now. Credit card transactions would be identical, even though your card might have a quantum chip inside, and apps to which it’s linked would likely be the preferred way to pay. But while you’ll hardly give it a second thought, the data you generate as you interact with internet connected devices would be safer, there would be fewer worries of a drive-by hacking into your home’s wi-fi or smart devices, or having your financial information compromised. And some of the software you use every day without even knowing that it exists could be written in a completely new kind of programming language to make all of this possible.