University of Calgary

Keeping our information safe for the long term

UToday HomeJuly 14, 2011

By Leanne Yohemas

Researchers from the University of Calgary and SAIT Polytechnic have developed a system that allows the distribution of secret keys. Quantum keys can be used to encrypt and decrypt sensitive messages using tiny light particles, so-called photons, to send keys.

Today’s communication security is threatened by faster computers and better code-breaking algorithms, and will become obsolete with the advent of the quantum computer. Researchers at the University of Calgary and SAIT Polytechnic have demonstrated that they can send an unbreakable quantum key between the institutions. This is a significant milestone in Canada.

“The unique partnership between these two Campus Alberta institutions demonstrates our province’s collaborative spirit and our drive to innovate,” says Greg Weadick, minister of advanced education and technology. “This technology is ahead-of-its-time and the potential commercial applications could be a big step forward for Alberta’s knowledge-based economy.”

Often, information needs to be kept secure for 50 years or more, meaning the encryption method must withstand technological and algorithmic advances over time. Quantum encryption is advanced technology that can withstand these tests, while current encryption methods do not.

“This technology enables long-term safeguarding of personal, industry and government information,” says Wolfgang Tittel, a professor in the science faculty and the NSERC/GDC/Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures Industry Chair in Quantum Cryptography and Communication.

“This technology outperforms currently available commercial systems in several aspects and highlights Alberta as an area with practical quantum communication capabilities.”

Tittel and his research team have demonstrated that they can send a signal between the University of Calgary and SAIT using photons over fibre-optic cables used in traditional telecommunications. This signal, essentially a key that will later on be used to lock and retrieve information by means of encryption, cannot be copied or eavesdropped on without notice. If this happens, then this key will change, the legitimate sender and receiver will know that an interloper is trying to eavesdrop, and they won’t use the key any more.

The multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration between the university and SAIT is a unique aspect of Tittel’s program.

“This is a new type of collaboration that emphasizes a modern, problem-solving approach and requires experimental and theoretical skills stretching across a large variety of intellectual and technical boundaries,” says Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary. “It will help to encourage new programs in training first-class technicians and researchers to work in this area.”

Students and faculty in both institutions have been actively engaged in the project.