A Quantum Leap: Washington Bets Big On “Hack-Proof” Technology to Secure Communications

By: Josh Cervantes

In the final weeks of 2018, Congress broke through an endemic gridlock and passed into law H.R.6227, better known as the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA). The NQIA signals the entry of the US into the nascent, but already contested field of quantum communications, and pits the US against its greatest strategic competitor, China. The European Union has also launched its own billion-euro program, dubbed the Quantum Flagship, further illustrating the urgency with which global powers are entering into the quantum communications arena.

Quantum communication is a field of applied quantum physics utilized in ultra-high security applications that offer unparalleled levels of data security, integrity, and intrusion detection. It allows enormous amounts of light photons, which are used to transmit data through fiber-optic cables, to assume multiple combinations of 0’s and 1’s simultaneously. The particles of 0’s and 1’s are called qubits, and their extremely fragile state means that if a hacker were to intercept the communications they would collapse and assume a value of either 0 or 1, showing that the data was tampered with. This contrasts with traditional data transmission, which uses values of either 0 or 1 to convey specific data, allowing hackers to more easily ascertain the content of a specific message.

Among the powers granted under the NQIA is the President’s authority to implement a 10-year National Quantum Initiative Program through various federal agencies and to establish the National Quantum Coordination Office (NQCO). The NQCO will oversee interagency cooperation across a wide spectrum of government entities, including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. Currently, the largest active project funded by the NQIA is a 30-mile stretch of fiber-optic cable running between two labs in Illinois and operated by the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

While the NQIA is still early in its life cycle and has yet to see substantial implementation, private companies like Quantum Xchange remain undeterred from taking the initiative. Having secured $10 million in funding, the Bethesda, Md.-based company will connect financial markets and companies based on Wall Street with back offices in New Jersey. Surely this initial trial will be closely watched in nearby Washington, DC, where government agencies will be looking to see how well the technology performs.

Quantum communication also provides invaluable security for the nation’s renewed endeavors in space. In early 2019, the US Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross released a document containing recommendations aimed at improving the global competitiveness of the US space sector following the Trump Administration’s enactment of Space Policy Directive – 1. The document states that the US must protect “the reception and transmission of space-related operations against harmful interference. . .” by encouraging the “innovation and deployment of next-generation space operations.” It is no coincidence that the following section addresses the impact of quantum communications technologies, and furthermore directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to explore how quantum communications networks can interact with existing legacy networks. The US government’s exploration of Deep Space ventures will also warrant a method of ensuring secure, long-range communications between its satellites and ground-based control centers.

China’s low-key and successful foray into quantum communication has also fueled the US’s desire to throw its hat in the ring. In late 2017, China conducted a successful video conference using QKD’s (quantum key distribution) to decrypt the data, and thus giving China claim to the title of world’s first quantum encrypted intercontinental video link.

China has not only made quantum technology development a crucial state megaproject, but also sees the technology as a way to leapfrog the US in terms of strategic dominance. Additionally, China has already built the world’s largest QKD network, spanning 1,263 miles from Beijing to Shanghai. According to a lead researcher in China’s quantum projects, Beijing plans to launch four additional satellites in the next 4-5 years in an endeavor to create a continent-wide quantum-secured internet.

While the US has taken affirmative steps to strengthen its quantum technological capabilities, its dominance in the sector is by no means assured. As the need for secure communications becomes more urgent by the day, the US will be hard-pressed to catch up to its rival while facing multiple security threats both online and offline. The NQIA’s broad scope, however, appears to muster the full might of American technological innovation, and history has shown that such a concentration of resources, innovation, and sheer will has led to strategic dominance. The US has recognized the dynamic security needs of the 21st century. Only time will tell if it has acted soon enough to ensure dominance.

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