How Quantum Cryptology Works

By: Josh Clark

Quantum Cryptology Problems

Example of Einstein's "Spooky Action at a Distance"
Example of Einstein's "Spooky Action at a Distance"
2007 HowStuffWorks

Despite all of the security it offers, quantum cryptology also has a few fundamental flaws. Chief among these flaws is the length under which the system will work: It’s too short.

The original quantum cryptography system, built in 1989 by Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard and John Smolin, sent a key over a distance of 36 centimeters [source: Scientific American]. Since then, newer models have reached a distance of 150 kilometers (about 93 miles). But this is still far short of the distance requirements needed to transmit information with modern computer and telecommunication systems.


The reason why the length of quantum cryptology capability is so short is because of interference. A photon’s spin can be changed when it bounces off other particles, and so when it's received, it may no longer be polarized the way it was originally intended to be. This means that a 1 may come through as a 0 -- this is the probability factor at work in quantum physics. As the distance a photon must travel to carry its binary message is increased, so, too, is the chance that it will meet other particles and be influenced by them.

One group of Austrian researchers may have solved this problem. This team used what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” This observation of quantum physics is based on the entanglement of photons. At the quantum level, photons can come to depend on one another after undergoing some particle reactions, and their states become entangled. This entanglement doesn’t mean that the two photons are physically connected, but they become connected in a way that physicists still don't understand. In entangled pairs, each photon has the opposite spin of the other -- for example, ( / ) and ( ). If the spin of one is measured, the spin of the other can be deduced. What’s strange (or “spooky”) about the entangled pairs is that they remain entangled, even when they’re separated at a distance.

The Austrian team put a photon from an entangled pair at each end of a fiber optic cable. When one photon was measured in one polarization, its entangled counterpart took the opposite polarization, meaning the polarization the other photon would take could be predicted. It transmitted its information to its entangled partner. This could solve the distance problem of quantum cryptography, since there is now a method to help predict the actions of entangled photons.

Even though it’s existed just a few years so far, quantum cryptography may have already been cracked. A group of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology took advantage of another property of entanglement. In this form, two states of a single photon become related, rather than the properties of two separate photons. By entangling the photons the team intercepted, they were able to measure one property of the photon and make an educated guess of what the measurement of another property -- like its spin -- would be. By not measuring the photon’s spin, they were able to identify its direction without affecting it. So the photon traveled down the line to its intended recipient none the wiser.

The MIT researchers admit that their eavesdropping method may not hold up to other systems, but that with a little more research, it could be perfected. Hopefully, quantum cryptology will be able to stay one step ahead as decoding methods continue to advance.

For more information on quantum physics and cryptology, explore the links that follow.

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More Great Links


  • Alves, Carolina Moura and Kent Adrian. "Quantum Cryptography." National University of Singapore.
  • Azzole, Pete. "Ultra: The Silver Bullet." Crypotolog. November 1996.
  • Brumfiel, Geoffrey. "Quantum Cryptography is Hacked." Nature. April 27, 2007.
  • Messmer, Ellen. "Quantum Cryptography to Secure Ballots in Swiss Election." Network World. October 11, 2007.
  • Stix, Gary. "Best-Kept Secrets: Quantum cryptography has marched from theory to laboratory to real products." Scientific American. January 2005. 000479CD-F58C-11BE-AD0683414B7F0000
  • Vittorio, Salvatore. "Quantum Cryptography: Privacy through Uncertainty." CSA. October 2002.­
  • "Quantum Cryptography Tutorial." Dartmouth College.