Innovative projects led by scientists from NATO and partner countries are breaking new ground, harnessing the power of quantum to make communications impossible to intercept and hack. The security and defense applications of these quantum technologies could aid future information transmission, protect it from increasingly sophisticated hacking systems, and aid NATO’s efforts to maintain its technological edge.
The R&D program of NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) program has been investigating security-related applications of quantum technology in its three main areas: computing, sensing and communications. Quantum computing and sensing are increasing the capabilities of computers and remote measurement technologies to levels not previously attainable. In the field of quantum communications, SPS activity has shown the most promising results. These projects develop systems for information encryption and secure transmission using quantum key distribution (QKD) and post-quantum cryptography (PQC). Through these technologies, they address the growing security concerns associated with new technologies such as quantum computers that can decipher secret communications by preventing unauthorized access.
Testing Quantum Key Distribution (QKD)
QKD is a quantum communication method that shares decryption keys. In this system, encrypted messages are sent over a traditional network, while the keys to decrypt the messages are transmitted quantum. This way, only the intended recipient can decode the message, making any eavesdropping impossible. By applying this approach, an SPS project successfully connected the prototype QKD link in Italy and Malta for the first time using a submarine cable.
Another SPS-backed research initiative investigates QKD technology to send encryption keys from one endpoint to another, which is located hundreds of kilometers away. Meanwhile, researchers at a university in the Czech Republic are studying the application of QKD technology on 5G networks to explore its potential to enhance cybersecurity in future communication systems.
Demonstration of Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC)
Unlike QKD, which uses physical quantum properties to protect information, PQC uses cryptographic and mathematical functions as an alternative to secure communication. An international team of scientists supported by SPS recently demonstrated that using PQC, information can be securely transmitted without being decrypted by hackers, even those with quantum computers. Through security protocols, five research groups at NATO headquarters in Malta, Slovakia, Spain, the United States and Brussels, Belgium have managed to communicate in a completely secure space with no risk of intrusion.
The new NATO strategic concept agreed by the allies at the 2022 Madrid Summit recognizes the critical role of technology, especially emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT), in shaping the future of the alliance. To explore the potential and risks associated with EDT, the SPS program is supporting research activities targeting EDT technology trends such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, bioengineering, and especially quantum technologies. Future SPS activities to study quantum will look at how QKD and PQC can be integrated to protect the information infrastructure for the alliance in the best and most comprehensive way.