Edward Snowden’s revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have heightened concerns over electronic privacy, espionage and meddling. It has spawned great discussion on what can be done to thwart such government abuse. Physicists are on the cusp of providing the universe with an internet which might be tamper-proof. Without getting too complicated or delving to deeply into the dark regions of ’nerd-dom’, this article hopes to give you a glimpse of what is on the horizon. But be sure of one thing- the pieces of an ultra-secure, high-speed communications web are beginning to take shape in labs around the world.
The theory of a truly private, tamper-free digital communications solution has already existed for several decades. But the technology needs further refining before it is available on a mass scale across the internet. It might even be commercially viable and available within ten years. For opponents of government snooping and staunch advocates of privacy it is a technology whose time has come. It seems that encryption alone will not do the trick. What may be near is a communications technology that not only maximizes privacy but also reveals when a message has been intercepted or copied. Recent revelations , most notably by Edward Snowden, demonstrate how today’s methods for secure communication are, well, insecure! Given how easy it is to search, copy and store electronic data, it is little wonder why so many of us are worried about vulnerability to spying.
The salvation is a system based on quantum physics; more specifically it is grounded in the concept of ’entanglement’. This is a subject that even accomplished scientists discuss with some trepidation. So I’m not going to dwell to long or too deeply on a topic that physicists have grappled with to come up with metaphors analogies for. Suffice to say entanglement involves the creation of two particles (photons) of light which spin as they travel. If something happens that causes either of the two to change their spin direction or rate of spin, the other immediately changes its spin to compensate. In this way entangled photons act like a booby-trap for outside tampering. This is what makes a quantum internet so secure.
So wiretapping, or eavesdropping or any snooping activity would disturb the system. This disturbance would be detectable by both the sender and recipient. This now works in the lab and has even given rise to a commercial cottage industry doing what is called quantum-key distribution. This is the utilization of quantum methods to generate encryption keys that are substantially more secure than conventional ones. The drawback is that, right now, the keys can only be shared across relatively short distances, i.e., 125 miles of optical fiber. Also, presently, quantum connections are quite slow compared to standard internet communication speeds.
To go further distances and at greater speeds other technologies are being researched. And it appears it will take several years yet before devices are small enough, cheap enough and efficient enough to be massed produced. But the finish line is within sight. Efforts are being made to expand bandwidths over extended distances. But the crucial part will be building the connections that can span the globe so users can communicate with complete privacy. Until then, those concerned with privacy can rely on Virtual Private Networks to protect them.
As stated at the outset of this article this is a basic treatment of a complex technology. But I hope it has raised your hopes that the internet of the future might be one which is invulnerable to spying by governments or corporations. One can only hope that scientists working to ensure our privacy stay one step ahead of these entities.