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China wants to build 'unhackable' computer network

Read time 3min 10sec
A Chinese city will become the first in the world to use "ultra secure quantum communication in government".
A Chinese city will become the first in the world to use "ultra secure quantum communication in government".

Using quantum cryptography, China is looking to build what it calls one of the world's largest hack-proof computer networks.

The county is moving away from the traditional methods of encryption and has initiated a pilot project in the city of Jinan - 200 users from the military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them.

The innovation comes as cyber criminals cost the global economy $454 billion last year. According to San Francisco-based RiskIQ, "in a single evil Internet minute, malicious activity costs international commerce $858 153 and victimises 1 080 people".

According to a report by the state-owned English-language newspaper China Daily, Jinan will become the first city in the world, by the end of August, to use "ultra-secure quantum communication in government".

The network, which cost 120 million yuan ($19.5 million), will connect party and government offices in the Shandong provincial capital, which has a population of seven million.

The report notes the system has passed more than 50 rounds of tests since May and is capable of encrypting more than 4 000 pieces of data every second and transmitting information to 200 terminals in the city.

The network has exchanged data more than 51 000 times since its launch in November 2013 - including secure telephone calls, faxes and files - with a success rate of more than 99%, Liu Hong, a professor at Shandong University, who was involved in the testing, is quoted in the report as saying.

There is almost certainly no such thing as an unhackable network.

Jon Tullett, IDC's research manager for IT services for Africa

Quantum communication is regarded as the most secure because its encryption is based on quantum entanglement, in which two or more subatomic particles affect each other simultaneously, regardless of the distance between them.

At the same time, the particles cannot be destroyed or duplicated. Any eavesdropper will disrupt the entanglement and alert the authorities, Hong adds.

Quantum cryptography

Quantum cryptography was proposed first by Stephen Wiesner, then at Columbia University in New York, who, in the early 1970s, introduced the concept of quantum conjugate coding.

The most well-known and developed application of quantum cryptography is quantum key distribution, which is the process of using quantum communication to establish a shared key between two parties (Alice and Bob, for example) without a third-party (Eve) learning anything about that key, even if Eve can eavesdrop on all communication between Alice and Bob.

If Eve tries to learn information about the key being established, key establishment will fail, causing Alice and Bob to notice. Once the key is established, it is then typically used for encrypted communication using classical techniques. For instance, the exchanged key could be used as for symmetric cryptography.

No such thing

Nonetheless, Jon Tullett, IDC's research manager for IT services for Africa, says: "There is almost certainly no such thing as an unhackable network."

He points out encryption is one of the most important technologies of our time. "We have plenty of strong crypto already, and quantum crypto is neat because it can detect interception. So, even if the crypto isn't actually stronger, it's a useful capability that hardens one specific part of the attack surface. But the weakness in communications is rarely the crypto. The weaknesses are in the implementation, the applications, and the users.

"Until we can do quantum user exchange, the Internet will remain eminently hackable," says Tullett.

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