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Chinese quantum communications network touted as “unhackable”

The Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology is due to launch a new quantum communications service in August, which can almost instantly detect an attempted cyber attack. The establishment of the service puts China firmly ahead of the rest of the world in the race to defend against increasingly sophisticated cyber threats.

The system cost approximately 120 million yuan (£13.7 million), and has been undergoing dozens of rounds of tests since May. Reportedly, it can encrypt more than 4,000 pieces of data every second; it can encrypt telephone calls, faxes and other files with a success rate of more than 99 per cent.

According to the South China Morning Post, the centre is expected to be operating by August.

The Jinan-based network will allow approximately 200 users from the military, government, finance and electricity sectors to send messages between Shanghai and Beijing with – in theory – absolute security. According to Zhou Fei, assistant director of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, this network could be “used across China and the whole world”. Applications with this unprecedented level of security could mean that other countries find themselves buying from China.

The technology being employed is reportedly quantum cryptography, which has been discussed for decades but is seemingly far from being made a reality. However, China has been investing heavily in developing practical quantum technology, which could bolster the country’s cyber defences to an unprecedented degree.

Today, encryption is achieved through the sharing of a hidden key, required for decryption, between sender and receiver. These keys can be exposed using computers to crunch through complex mathematical problems, and as computational power continues to increase, the length and complexity of these keys must be increased to retain security.

The increasing possibility of quantum computers becoming a reality is a headache for those in cybersecurity, given that their (theoretical) computational power far exceeds any computer in existence. Quantum computers are based on qubits (quantum bits), which can represent both a zero and a one simultaneously. This allows information to be processed in entirely new ways, enormously reducing the amount of time taken to solve certain problems.

Scientific problems such as complex simulations, which would take millennia to solve on an ordinary computer, could be solved in hours on a quantum computer. These computers could also make current encryption methods highly vulnerable.

When two people use quantum communication, they carry out measurements on pairs of entangled particles to create a randomly generated key. If a hacker attempts to intercept their messages, the particles are disrupted and the sender and receiver instantly know that somebody is attempting to eavesdrop on their conversation. This is why quantum communication is described as “unhackable”.

Last year, China launched a quantum communications satellite, which recently achieved communication over a record-breaking distance in a major step forward for practical quantum communication.

Professor Anton Zeilinger, a quantum communications expert based at Vienna University, who has lobbied the EU since 2004 for investment in quantum research, told the BBC that “Europe has simply missed the boat” in leading the world in quantum communications, with only theoretical research projects being carried out.

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