The first “unhackable” quantum communication network has been successfully demonstrated in Malta for the first time, paving the way for heightened cybersecurity systems to be introduced to the country.
The technology is being developed here by the Physical Security for Public Infrastructure in Malta (PRISM) Consortium, which is partially funded by the EU in an effort to simplify cutting-edge technology into products that can be integrated into any entity’s security system.
Professor André Xuereb, CEO of the project’s technical lead Merqury Cybersecurity Limited, explained that any technology existing today in which data or information is sent from point A to point B over a network is hackable. While cybersecurity has made great advances, the advent of easily accessible quantum computers on the horizon means that those who seek to steal data will be able to do so with little effort.
But if the quantum technology is utilised within the network itself it creates the possibility of neutralising that threat.
“Every means we have to communicate securely, whether it’s buying something from a website speaking to a friend, is secured using encryption protocols, which we now know are breakable. Breaching this system is how most people perceive hacking into a computer system and stealing information works,” Xuereb told Times of Malta.
“But here we’re talking about an even deeper level of hacking, which is someone listening in on the communications channel, on the fibre optic of the actual network. And there’s nothing we can do: if someone digs a hole and finds a fibre, they can listen in on the encrypted conversation.”
Right now, anyone listening in on this ‘conversation’ will only find encrypted data. But, Xuereb continues, the scientific community strongly believes that in a few years’ time quantum computers will be more widely accessible and will allow people to unencrypt such data in a matter of seconds.
“That’s why it’s important to develop new technologies which counteract this threat. And, as it turns out, the only technology we know of that can counteract this threat is the use of what we call quantum key distribution of quantum secure communications,” he said.
The demonstration was able to showcase this when the first link of the network between the Department of ICT at the University of Malta and the Department of Physics was turned on in front of a public audience for the first time.
A groundbreaking technology which any entity can use to easily embrace next-generation cybersecurity
In a national first, it also marks a significant milestone in the development of a robust nationwide quantum communication network, which promises to provide an unprecedented level of cybersecurity in the years to come.
“What we demonstrated today is a groundbreaking technology which any entity can use to easily embrace next-generation cybersecurity. With this technology, anyone can incorporate quantum-secured communication into their network without having to overhaul their entire IT infrastructure,” Xuereb said.
Merqury CTO Noel Farrugia said that the successful launch of this cutting-edge technology augured success for the goal of deploying quantum-secured communication links over standard networks.
“With this public demonstration, we aimed to reach three goals. First, to showcase to the attendees what an actual quantum key distribution device looks like, and the physical requirements for such devices to work. Second is the ease by which our software stack allows anyone to encrypt traffic with QKD-generated keys,” he said.
“Finally, we are continuing our efforts in raising awareness about what the quantum threat means, and what tools and techniques are available to overcome such a threat.”
The PRISM project is being undertaken by Merqury Cybersecurity Limited, RSM Malta, Melita Limited, Umnai Limited, the University of Malta, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Directorate and the Malta Information Technology Agency.
The EU co-funded project aims to establish a country-wide ultra-secure quantum communications network. It aligns with the European Commission’s extensive efforts to develop a Europe-wide Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI).
As Malta’s designated project within this initiative, PRISM will spearhead the development of a quantum-secure network across the Maltese islands and its connection to the wider European network.