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Quantum Cryptography Done Over Shared Data Line

Researchers have sent quantum keys over a "lit" fiber-optic network, a step towards using quantum cryptography on the networks businesses and institutions use every day.

A group of U.K.-based research groups last week said the demonstration opens the door to more research that will make the technology more commercially viable. The researchers were from Toshiba Research Europe, BT, ADVA Optical Networking, and the U.K.'s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). 

In quantum cryptography, the keys to unlock the contents of communications are represented with photons. It starts with a laser that sends a pair of photons over a fiber-optic network. The polarization of photons—whether they’re oscillating horizontally or vertically, for example—can be detected by a receiver and read as bits, which are used to generate the same encryption key at both ends of the network connection. If an interloper attempts to intercept the keys to decrypt a message, the receiver will be able to detect a change, according to the laws of quantum mechanics. If that happens, the receiver can reject the keys and the message stays encrypted.

Until now, quantum key distribution (QKD) has been done over dark fiber, or unused optical fiber lines, which means that a separate fiber optic line is needed for transmitting other data. But dark fiber networks are not always available and are expensive. Being able to transmit quantum keys over a lit fiber network means that institutions and businesses will be able to run quantum cryptography over their existing networking infrastructure, the researchers said.

"Using techniques to filter out noise from the very weak quantum signals, we've shown that QKD can be operated on optical fibers installed in the ground and carrying conventional data signals," said Andrew Shields from Toshiba Research Europe in a statement

The National Physics Laboratory developed a series of measurements for identifying individual particles of light from the stream of photons sent over a fiber-optic line. That will allow the system to detect attempts to intercept the transmission of keys, which should improve customer confidence in quantum cryptography, said Alastair Sinclair from the National Physics Laboratory in a statement.

The test was conducted over a live BT fiber link between its research campus in Suffolk and another BT site in Ipswich, U.K. In an interview with Nature, Toshiba's Shields said the quantum key distribution was done alongside data transmitted at 40 gigabits per second, the fastest multiplexing of regular data with quantum keys to date. But he notes that implementing QKD in the "real world" is more challenging than a laboratory environment because there are environmental fluctuations that can cause data loss in fiber lines.

Another technical challenge facing widespread use of QKD is the distance keys can be sent. Light pulses sent over a fiber optic line fade, which means that key distribution can only be done at a distance of about 100 kilometers. (See Long-Distance Quantum Cryptography.) But as governments and companies seek out the most secure ways to send data, quantum cryptography could become an appealing option.

Christopher Yoo Thinks Net Neutrality's End Might Not Be So Bad

Net neutrality's principle of treating all Internet traffic equally may no longer hold under a new U.S. regulatory proposal for broadband providers. But one law and technology expert doesn't think that the sky is falling just because Comcast or Verizon could charge Internet content providers extra for faster delivery of Internet services.

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IBM Prints World’s Smallest Magazine Cover in 3-D

Kids will look through a microscope at the world’s smallest magazine cover at today and tomorrow’s USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. When they do, they will see a fuzzy pair of panda twins on the March 2014 cover of National Geographic Kids, the defending champion of Guinness World Records for the smallest magazine cover. This year’s is 11 by 14 micrometers (National Geographic video). Engineers and researchers looking through the microscope, however, might see the cover for what it really is: a demonstration of scanning probe nanolithography’s growing prowess.

Researchers at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, began developing a new method for etching polymers several years ago, as IEEE Spectrum reported in 2010 (“IBM Develops Patterning Technique That Could Replace E-Beam Lithography”). That patterning method used a heated silicon probe to evaporate the material in the substrate, leaving behind the desired pattern in three dimensions. Part of the breakthrough was choosing the right chemistry for the substrate, so that the evaporated chemicals went into a less reactive phase, preventing them from sticking to nearby surfaces.

One of the researchers involved, Urs Duerig, says that was more elegant and cleaner than related lithographic methods, some of which left the excavated debris on nearby surfaces. At first, however, it was too slow for most applications. But by 2011, the team reported a 1000x increase in the speed of their system in the journal Nanotechnology. That speed brings the method on par with existing commercial nanolithography techniques.

The method has another advantage: built-in inspection. After a heated silicon tip evaporates the unwanted material, a second relatively cold tip inspects the results. That’s handier than the industry standard, electron-beam lithography, which requires a separate inspection process. Scanning probe nanolithography may also offer researchers greater control over the depth of the cavities they produce. Duerig claims that they can achieve 1-nm precision. That would enable researchers to create tiny optical cavities, for example, or to create curved structures such as lenses. 

IBM licensed the technology to SwissLitho, a spinoff startup founded by researchers from the original team. That team set about creating a machine they could sell to other researchers, and shipped their first one a few weeks ago to a lab at McGill University, which promptly drew a micro-map of Canada.

Maybe for their next publicity stunt they should map the Vatican City.

FCC Plan for Internet Fast Lanes Leaves Net Neutrality Behind

Open Internet rules that have preserved equal treatment for all Web traffic could undergo a radical shift in the coming days. U.S. federal regulators plan to propose new rules today that would allow broadband providers such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable to charge extra fees to companies for access to faster Internet lanes—perhaps signaling the death knell for net neutrality.

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Error-Free Quantum Computing Made Possible in New Experiment

For quantum computing to ever fulfill its promise, it will have to deal with errors. That's been a real problem until now, because although scientists have come up with error correction codes, the quantum machines available couldn't make use of them. But researchers report today that they've created a small quantum computing array that for the first time performs with enough accuracy to allow for error correction—paving the way toward practical machines that could outperform ordinary computers.

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Supreme Court Debates Aereo's Fate, Future of TV and Cloud

Should scrappy, tech-savvy entrepreneurs be able to design their way around laws that regulate rebroadcasting? That was the underlying issue on 22 April as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., et al. v. Aereo, Inc.

Aereo, which IEEE Spectrum profiled earlier this year, is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based startup that lets subscribers stream TV shows from certain channels to their digital devices. Its tagline is “Watch live TV online. Save shows for later. No cable required.” Aereo does that by picking up free television broadcasts and storing them in a cloud-based DVR system.

But here's the key technological detail: Each Aereo subscriber is assigned an individual, postage-stamp-size antenna, which is attached to one of the company's servers and picks up TV signals for that user. Because customers rent their own antennas, Aereo argues that its service does not violate rebroadcasting laws.

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Many Americans Wary of Drones, Robot Caregivers and Google Glass

Many Americans who see technology as changing life for the better don't seem ready to embrace commercial drones, robot caregivers and wearable computing devices such as Google Glass. A new survey shows certain technologies remaining controversial despite a majority of respondents having an optimistic view of technology's long-term impact on life.

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Tiny Particles Can Deliver Three Cancer Drugs to Target Tumors

Tiny particles capable of precisely targeting cancerous tumors with fewer side effects have been limited in their ability to deliver more than one or two drugs. MIT researchers have overcome that limit for the first time by building new nanoparticles capable of carrying three or more chemotherapy drugs.

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FBI's Facial Recognition Database Will Include Non-Criminals

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aims to collect up to 52 million facial images of both criminals and ordinary citizens by 2015. These will be stored in a single expanded biometrics database that will allow law enforcement to search both criminal and non-criminal faces at the same time—a capability that has some watchdog groups warning of possible privacy violations.

The FBI's growing collection of facial recognition data inside its Next Generation Identification (NGI) database already includes 16 million images as of the middle of 2013, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit group focused on digital rights. The agency's goal of expanding to 52 million images by 2015 also includes a possible 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes such as applying for a job. For the first time, U.S. law enforcement could run searches on both criminal and non-criminal faces simultaneously in the hunt for suspects.

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Bitcoin is a Tax Nightmare, But LibraTax Has Got You Covered

Happy April, 15th! For U.S. citizens and residents, today is tax day. And if you're one of the many Americans who was pulled into the cryptocurrency fray last year—if you traded Bitcoin on online exchanges, if you bought a ticket to space with bitcoins, even if you just used it to buy your morning coffee—then filing your taxes just got a lot more complicated. Last month, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published its guidance for "virtual currency" holders, in which it defines Bitcoin and all other digital currencies as property rather than foreign currency. In order to comply with the rule, Bitcoin holders who are U.S. taxpayers must now calculate a capital gain or loss on every transaction they make. If you bought your Bitcoin at US $600, but it was valued at $800 when you used it to buy that coffee, then you owe taxes on the difference. 

With Bitcoin's crazy price swings—the exchange rate of Bitcoin soared past $1000 last December, went down to $800 in February, and it's around $500 today—that makes for a lot of messy calculations. Fortunately, the Bitcoin community doesn't tend to sit on its problems for very long, at least not when they are technical in nature. Companies are already emerging to offer simple, automated tax preparation for Bitcoin users. This will be the primary product of a company called LibraTax, which plans to officially launch this fall.

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