16 October 2007—A system that produces unbreakable encryption based on the quantum properties of light will be used to secure the electronic transmission of votes in a Swiss election next week. Grégoire Ribordy, CEO of Geneva-based id Quantique, the company that built the system, considers it to be the first real-world use of quantum cryptography and a major step toward creating a larger engineering test bed for the technology in Geneva.
Id Quantique approached Geneva’s regional government last August to demonstrate quantum cryptography devices, and officials immediately upped the ante. ”They said, ’Okay, we’re interested, but we’d like you to do something even more. We’d like you to use it in a real setting,’ ” says Ribordy, who cofounded the company. The 21 October Swiss parliamentary election provides a good opportunity to cut the ribbon on quantum cryptography, he says.
The company took the month of September to quickly install and test its technology. The system, called Cerberis, links a government data center in the suburbs of Geneva via optical fiber to a counting station in the city, which will centralize all the votes for the canton. On each side of the connection, id Quantique has installed a gigabit Ethernet encrypter and two quantum key servers. The quantum key servers generate a code on each end in a way that ensures no eavesdropper can intercept it. The servers pass the keys to the encrypters. The encrypter at the counting station encodes the vote data with the key and then transmits it to the one at the government data center, which uses its key to decode the data.
After the election, id Quantique plans to build a larger test bed for its technology. Enlisting the support of the University of Geneva, the company will set up several links similar to the one they are using in next week’s election and monitor them throughout the following year. ”The idea is to go from one link to a multilink network. And this network would be used for research, or training and education, and also for demonstration,” says Ribordy.
Id Quantique is a partner in another, more complicated, effort, in Vienna, to work out the technical kinks of quantum cryptography networks. The project, called SECOQC, plans to deploy a network of seven links in 2008, mostly to service academic institutions.
Ribordy explains that his company is most interested in adapting its devices for the likely first users of quantum cryptography, such as banks and government agencies. Other companies, such as MagiQ Technologies in New York City, and SmartQuantum in Lannion, France, have focused on the larger telecommunications market. Moving in that direction, SmartQuantum recently demonstrated that its quantum devices are compatible with the common optical-fiber communications scheme called wavelength division multiplexing (WDM). ”The main goal of that demonstration was basically to address the carrier market,” says commercial and marketing director Francois Guignot of SmartQuantum. It’s competitor MagiQ says it had already shown WDM compatibility months before in partnership with the U.S. telecommunications firm Verizon.
Ribordy says that id Quantique accepts the importance of addressing WDM compatibility, but that there is more to be learned by setting up a small quantum network, such as the one the company is building in Geneva, where engineers can see what problems might arise and figure out how to fix them.
Although the Geneva network will be experimental, Ribordy says next week’s vote will not be. The system connecting Geneva’s voting centers has been operational for about a month now, and officials have done two dry runs of the election to make sure everything goes smoothly.