Some users of China Telecom, one of the country’s three state-owned telecoms companies, can now make quantum encrypted phone calls using a special SIM card and smartphone app, the company announced last week.
The step is the latest from China to demonstrate the country’s devotion to all things quantum computing. It is a field that has become part of the ongoing US-China tech war, including artificial intelligence and 5G.
The service was introduced in Anhui province as a pilot programme, where China Telecom said it was hiring “customers with friendly experience.” Users must visit a bricks-and-mortar China Telecom shop to change out the SIM card in order to get the new functionality. It also needs the company’s “Quantum encrypted secure phone calls” app, which, according to a statement from China Telecom last Friday, is currently only available for Android. Pricing for the new feature was not revealed by the firm.
Unlike traditional encryption methods that rely solely on algorithms, quantum encryption is protected by laws of quantum physics. In theory, all information scrambled by traditional encryption algorithms can be cracked by a computer given enough time. Quantum cryptography is different because any attempt to intercept data will cause a physical change in the message. It will alerts the sender and receiver to potential eavesdropping.
For users of the new China Telecom service, using quantum information technology, starting a quantum phone call will produce two hidden keys. These are used to validate the identity of the caller and the specifics of the call, ensuring end-to-end encryption.
Gao Chengshi is a cryptography expert and a founding partner of the blockchain developer Shanghai Hashvalue Information Technology. According to him, current technology using asymmetric cryptography to validate identities is simpler to build than quantum encryption. And also it is safe enough to meet current market demand.
However, existing technology may be challenged by superfast quantum computers that can easily crack such encryption schemes.
“Gao said, “The development of quantum technologies would break up the secrecy of asymmetric cryptography. “Qantum must be used for encryption when quantum computing reaches a higher and more practical level.”
Quantum encrypted service would first be available to users from certain ‘total security’ sectors.
China Telecom said the new service would first be available to users from certain ‘total security’ sectors. For example, government, military and financial institutions that need it. In the future, it will extend to civil use, the firm added.
A joint venture founded last November by China Telecom and the quantum telecoms firm QuantumCTek Group created the service. Liu Guiqing, China Telecom’s executive director, then said that the company aims to provide more than 10 million mobile users with quantum-secure calls within five years.
According to a Jan 1 article by Chinese media Jiemian, the companies also said they would roll out special phones with quantum encryption features. They are already being created, citing a company representative who did not provide additional information.
While quantum cryptography has been around for years, practical constraints such as distance of transmission have been present. China has become a pioneer in the expansion of the distance of data sent using quantum key distribution in recent years.
A team of Chinese researchers successfully transmitted quantum encryption keys simultaneously to two ground stations in China located more than 1,120km apart in June 2020. For limited industrial uses, China has also developed the world’s first quantum satellite and the longest quantum communications networks.
Some of the most commonly used ways of encryption today may face some challenges as advances in quantum computing continue. As easily as it takes to toast a slice of bread, Quantum computers could crack current encryption methods. For example, RSA.
Last year, a team of Chinese scientists set a record with the Jiuzhang quantum computer. It measured a problem in 200 seconds that would have taken 2,5 billion years to complete the Chinese Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer, the fourth fastest in the world.
Cat-and-mouse game of cryptography.
Researchers are now trying to advance encryption systems that are immune to attacks from quantum computers in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game of cryptography.
Other nations are also looking to take leading roles in quantum science and technology. For example, the United States, the European Union and Britain all publishing their own proposals in recent years.
Companies worldwide are already now using quantum technology in phones and telecommunications. In May last year, Samsung launched a 5G smartphone. It includes a quantum random number generation chipset as an additional layer of security. Last October, the British BT Group and the European unit of Toshiba also announced the deployment of a 6km quantum-secure network between two local research institutes.
According to domestic think tank Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, the size of the quantum telecoms sector in China was 32.5bil yuan (RM20.18bil) in 2019, almost 20 percent higher than the year before.
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