University of Calgary

Keeping secrets

Information security pioneer recruited for quantum research

By Alana Mikkelsen

In the Second World War, secret agents transported confidential documents in briefcases handcuffed to their wrists. The keys were sent separately, as an added level of security.

Today’s experts don’t want you to have to go to such lengths to protect your private information. One of the latest recruits to the University of Calgary aims to make stolen banking information, compromised medical records and eavesdropping on phone calls a worry of the past.

Dr. Wolfgang Tittel, an internationally-renowned physicist recently recruited from the University of Geneva as the new iCORE/General Dynamics Canada Industry Chair in Quantum Cryptography and Communication, was among the first scientists in the world to apply quantum information techniques to applications outside the laboratory. Now he and his colleagues plan to build information networks that are impossible to compromise.

Quantum information holds great promise in the area of information security because it’s carried in bundles with a particular configuration. If anyone tries to “listen in” as these bundles are transmitted, the bundles change configuration, immediately scrambling the information.

These features make quantum technology ideal for generating ultra-secure quantum “keys” that protect private information, like a suitcase with a special lock. Try to pick the lock, and the suitcase blows up.

“Communication security is so important that we want it to be infinitely secure,” says Tittel, now a principal researcher at the U of C’s Institute for Quantum Information Science and its Centre for Information Security and Cryptography.

The centre and the institute rank among the leading academic entities of their kind in Canada.
“There are only a few groups in the world doing information security research as broad as the University of Calgary group,” Tittel says. “And in the area of applying quantum theory to fibre optics, there are probably only eight or 10 people in the world.”

As part of his research program, Tittel will partner with General Dynamics Canada to develop and test quantum encryption technologies on two dedicated fibre optic lines between the U of C and a laboratory at SAIT Polytechnic.

 The testing will build on pioneering research Tittel conducted at the University of Geneva, where his research group generated the first tests of quantum cryptography technology outside a laboratory.
He also led a revolutionary test of quantumly linked light particles, an 11-kilometre transmission that is still the world’s longest on an optical fibre line.

“Ultimately, we want to adapt the technology to protect information being sent hundreds of kilometres, and it may even be possible to provide quantum encryptions between continents via satellite communications,” he says.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to work with Dr. Tittel, and to bring fundamental quantum research into real life,” says master’s student Josh Slater, one of eight graduate students already doing research with the world-renowned expert. “It’s like working in the Q lab for James Bond.”

Tittel’s research chair is supported by $1.5 million over five years from iCORE and General Dynamics Canada, as well as by the U of C, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Alberta Advanced Education and Technology.