Toshiba starts tests on ‘unbreakable’ encryption

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 25, 2015

Tokyo based Toshiba Corporation, better known these days for its range of laptops, has announced that starting on 31 August it will begin ‘verification testing of the transmission of genome analysis data using quantum cryptography that is theoretically completely secure from tapping.’

(we suggest turning on the subs unless your Japanese is up to scratch!)

This quantum key distribution (QKD) system uses quantum mechanics to guarantee secure communication, as it is not possible to intercept an encrypted communication without alerting the parties involved,

While standard optical communications can be intercepted and read by measuring a part of the optical signal, bits in quantum communications are carried and sent by individual photons, which cannot be tampered with without leaving a trace of the intrusion. As a consequence the secrecy of untampered encryption keys, and the genome data they protect, can be guaranteed.

Toshiba quantum

Although quantum key distribution only protects transmission of the encryption key (not the data itself), when combined with a conventional encryption cipher it can provide provable security. As the Wall Street Journal explains,

Due to the nature of the particles, any interception or wiretapping activities on the cable would change the form of data, making any spying attempts detectable. And the one-time key would be the same size as the encrypted data, meaning there will be no repeated use of the pattern, which would make decoding without the correct key impossible, analysts say.’

Toshiba’s tests will run for two years (until August 2017), and will encrypt data collected by its ‘Japonica Array’ Japanese genome analysis tool, transmitting it over a distance of 7km between the Toshiba Life Science Analysis Center and Tohoku University’s Tohoku Medical Megabank Organization. If successful, Toshiba expects its technology to be able to transmit photos for hundreds of kilometers without the need to a repeater.

Toshiba aims to use the results of the current verification testing to support commercialization within five years of a quantum cryptographic communication system able to guarantee secure transfers of confidential information and personal information. Potential users will include public agencies and medical institutions.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is so enamoured about Toshiba’s claim that breaking the system would be ‘impossible’. Ken Westin, security analyst for Tripwire, noted in an email that,

It is great to see new innovations and research focused on better methods of encrypting data; however when I hear ‘unbreakable encryption’ or ‘100% secure,’ I immediately think of the Titanic. Making such claims in the world of security, particularly when it involves new technology, is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, particularly when it will not be deployed for another decade.

Westin also noted that even if all the technical kinks are ironed out (such as how to maintain stable photons with such long-distance vibration and heat conditions involved), successful implementation of the technology will also require that it be easy to use and deploy,

A component of security that is often overlooked—which is critical to adoption of new security technology—is usability and actual adoption of the technology… [This plan] does not sound like an open and easy-to-deploy tool for most industries.

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