How Quantum Cryptology Works

By: Josh Clark

Traditional Cryptology Problems

The keys used to encode messages are so long that it would take a trillion years to crack one using conventional computers.
The keys used to encode messages are so long that it would take a trillion years to crack one using conventional computers.

Both the secret-key and public-key methods of cryptology have unique flaws. Oddly enough, quantum physics can be used to either solve or expand these flaws.

The problem with public-key cryptology is that it's based on the staggering size of the numbers created by the combination of the key and the algorithm used to encode the message. These numbers can reach unbelievable proportions. What's more, they can be made so that in order to understand each bit of output data, you have to also understand every other bit as well. This means that to crack a 128-bit key, the possible numbers used can reach upward to the 1038 power [source: Dartmouth College]. That's a lot of possible numbers for the correct combination to the key.


The keys used in modern cryptography are so large, in fact, that a billion computers working in conjunction with each processing a billion calculations per second would still take a trillion years to definitively crack a key [source: Dartmouth College]. This isn't a problem now, but it soon will be. Current computers will be replaced in the near future with quantum computers, which exploit the properties of physics on the immensely small quantum scale. Since they can operate on the quantum level, these computers are expected to be able to perform calculations and operate at speeds no computer in use now could possibly achieve. So the codes that would take a trillion years to break with conventional computers could possibly be cracked in much less time with quantum computers. This means that secret-key cryptology (SKC) looks to be the preferred method of transferring ciphers in the future.

But SKC has its problems as well. The chief problem with SKC is how the two users agree on what secret key to use. If you live next door to the person with whom you exchange secret information, this isn't a problem. All you have to do is meet in person and agree on a key. But what if you live in another country? Sure, you could still meet, but if your key was ever compromised, then you would have to meet again and again.

It's possible to send a message concerning which key a user would like to use, but shouldn't that message be encoded, too? And how do the users agree on what secret key to use to encode the message about what secret key to use for the original message? The problem with secret-key cryptology is that there's almost always a place for an unwanted third party to listen in and gain information the users don't want that person to have. This is known in cryptology as the key distribution problem.

It's one of the great challenges of cryptology: To keep unwanted parties -- or eavesdroppers -- from learning of sensitive information. After all, if it was OK for just anyone to hear, there would be no need to encrypt a message.

Quantum physics has provided a way around this problem. By harnessing the unpredictable nature of matter at the quantum level, physicists have figured out a way to exchange information on secret keys. Coming up, we'll find out how quantum physics has revolutionized cryptology. But first, a bit on photons.