Quantum cyber security: Keeping secrets safe in the quantum age

- Ottawa, Ontario

You're at the cash register in a large retail store, credit card in hand. The staff tell you they can only take cash today because their system is down (confidentially, they've been hacked). Another time, you received a notice from the bank saying your credit card data had been compromised and telling you to stop using your card until you get a new one in the mail. Or perhaps your local hospital has experienced a "cyber incident."

Cybercrime stories such as these are hitting the headlines almost daily. That's because sensitive data stored by large, trusted organizations are magnets for hackers, who use it for nefarious purposes. According to the cyber security firm McAfee, cybercrime incidents now cost the world economy more than $1 trillion. Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that this will rise to $11 trillion annually by 2025. Losses can include revenue, work hours, downtime, brand reputation and reduced efficiency.

As early as 10 years from now, sophisticated cyber attacks could be used to rob banks, steal military secrets, or manipulate connected medical devices. Malicious entities could be using quantum computers to undo the security protecting online data. Essentially, information that is securely encrypted today and considered safe could be decrypted by adversaries once quantum computers come online.

The good news is that the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is working proactively with talented Canadian partners and collaborators to tackle the code breakers of the future. Under the NRC's High-throughput and Secure Networks Challenge program, they are aiming to ensure that Canada's networks—in both densely populated urban areas and rural and remote expanses— – are protected from quantum threats. In addition, the NRC's collaborators will be well positioned to carve out new business from the burgeoning quantum cyber-security market, estimated to grow from $100 million in 2020 to more than $4 billion in 2026.

Cybersecurity: Strength in numbers

According to Lynne Genik, Challenge program Director, "Under Canada's National Cyber Security Action Plan, the Government of Canada aims to protect Canadians from cybercrime and evolving cyber threats. With quantum threats looming on the horizon, the NRC and Canadian innovators are investing in advanced cyber-security solutions to guard against new risks".

A quantum delivery network (QDN) is one such solution being tested by leading quantum-safe cyber security company evolutionQ, in collaboration with the NRC and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which is responsible for protecting Government of Canada (GC) networks. QDN technology helps secure modern, high-speed networks using communication methods such as quantum key distribution (QKD). This technique outsmarts hackers by establishing highly secure communication channels between distant parties that cannot be tapped without detection.

Kitchener, Ontario-based evolutionQ, a pioneer in quantum-safe cryptography, is led by world-renowned quantum computing experts Dr. Michele Mosca and Dr. Norbert Lütkenhaus. The company's experience in writing software for such security products and services makes them an ideal partner for industry and government as they pursue infallible methods for defending Canadian data from quantum threats.

"While quantum computers are incredibly fast, quantum security technology is inherently slow and distance-limited," says Dr. Mosca, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of evolutionQ. "Our software makes sure that it works in high-speed networks or satellite environments that need to traverse vast distances to reach Canada's remote communities."

The High-throughput and Secure Networks Challenge program will help test these solutions that can be applied to wide-ranging fields such as financial services, government and telecommunications, where networks impact every Canadian and transmit and store citizen secrets—everything from mortgages and credit card transactions to health records and communications.

NRC brings the future to the door

As one of the first countries in the world to prioritize quantum research, Canada is a globally trusted source of innovative and leading-edge cryptography and cyber-security solutions. The launch of a GC national quantum strategy with the latest federal budget will continue to solidify the country's leadership in quantum science and technology development—and accelerate R&D.

The NRC brings diverse partners to the table— – from government stakeholders and academia to private enterprises—that work collaboratively with NRC scientists to address this problem for Canadians. "Since it is a challenging issue, finding solutions demands many great minds working together," adds Genik. She points out that the NRC's history, connections and expertise help bring the right partners together to conquer overwhelming challenges.

"We are plotting a course that aligns Canada's security needs with its economic development opportunities," she concludes. And along the way, participating businesses get their products to market faster and create new opportunities for Canadians to work, learn and live well.

The challenge programs are part of a suite of collaborative R&D initiatives bringing together researchers and facilities from across the NRC's 14 research centres with academic and industrial partners. Grant and contribution funding is provided through the NRC's National Program Office for collaborators who offer complementary expertise, including academic institutions and small and medium-sized enterprises.

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