Innovative projects led by scientists from NATO and partner nations are opening new avenues for harnessing the power of quantum to make communications impossible to intercept and hack. The application of these quantum technologies in the security and defense sectors could help future-proof the transmission of information, protecting it against increasingly advanced hacking systems and contributing to NATO’s efforts to maintain its technological lead.
NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) program research and development projects examined security-related applications of quantum technologies, addressing their three main areas: computing, sensing and the communications. Quantum computing and sensing are enhancing the capabilities of computing and remote measurement technologies to levels they are typically not capable of. In the field of quantum communications, the activities of the SPS are yielding the most promising results. These projects develop systems for encryption and secure transmission of information using quantum key distribution (QKD) and post-quantum cryptography (PQC). Using these techniques, they address growing security concerns with new technologies – such as quantum computers, which can decipher secret communications – by preventing unauthorized access.
Test Quantum Key Distribution (QKD)
QKD is a quantum communication method for sharing decryption keys. In this system, an encrypted message is sent over traditional networks, while the keys to decrypt the information are transmitted by quantum means. This way, only the intended recipient can decode the message, making eavesdropping impossible. Applying this method, an SPS project successfully connected Italy and Malta for the first time with a prototype QKD link using fiber optic submarine cables.
Another SPS-supported research initiative investigated QKD techniques for sending cryptographic keys from one terminal to another hundreds of kilometers away. Meanwhile, researchers from a university in the Czech Republic are studying the application of QKD technology on a 5G network to explore its potential for improving cybersecurity in future communication systems.
Demonstration of Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC)
Unlike QKD, which uses physical quantum properties to protect information, PQC uses cryptography and mathematical functions as an alternative approach to securing communications. An international group of scientists supported by SPS recently demonstrated that by using PQC, it is possible to transmit information securely without the possibility of decryption by a hacker, even if he has a quantum computer. Thanks to a secure protocol, five research groups based in Malta, Slovakia, Spain, the United States and at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, managed to communicate in a completely secure space, free from any risk of intrusion.
NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted by Allies at the 2022 Madrid Summit, recognizes the essential role of technology, and in particular Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (EDT), in shaping the future of NATO. Alliance. To explore the potential and risks associated with TEDs, the SPS program supports research activities that address technological trends in TEDs, such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, bioengineering and especially quantum technologies. Future quantum-focused SPS activities will examine how to integrate both QKD and PQC to secure the information infrastructure in the best and most holistic way for the Alliance.