AUSTRALIA: Quantum physics outsmarts hackers

Edgar Allen Poe once declared: "It can be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." That may once have been true but is no longer: physicists at the Australian National University (ANU) have used quantum cryptography to develop an "unhackable" system of transmitting information.

Traditional cryptography is based on complex mathematics whereas quantum cryptography uses the laws of physics to guarantee that no human can resolve its cipher, says Dr Vikram Sharma, one of a team of researchers at the ANU now commercialising the new system.

"With quantum cryptography, we try and harness some of the fundamental properties that nature can offer us," Sharma says. "We are able to transmit information through precise laser beams, allowing senders and receivers to securely communicate via an electronic 'key'. This can be used by the sender to encrypt a message that only the receiver with the matching key can decrypt."

Organisations interested in the technology include defence, intelligence agencies and other government departments handling sensitive data. Financial institutions and companies "with deep intellectual property" are also likely users.

The ANU researchers developed quantum key distribution, or QKD, using laser beams encoded in a way that makes interception physically impossible. They won Australia's Eureka Prize for scientific research in 2006 by demonstrating an end-to-end working prototype of a QKD system and plan to produce it through QuintessenceLabs - a Canberra-based company they established that has attracted funding from government agencies and investors.

Sharma says two main commercial companies in America and Switzerland are developing Quantum encryption devices. But their prototypes cost more than US$100,000 and the ANU group says it can produce a far cheaper version using off-the-shelf components.