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Swiss pioneers play important role in EU crypto plans

Nicolas Gisin of Geneva University is one of the founders of id Quantique. zbp.univie.ac.at

Albert Einstein called it "spooky science", but that has not put off a tiny Swiss start-up company, id Quantique SA, in putting quantum physics of practical use.

This content was published on May 25, 2004 - 09:00

The Swiss technology is Europe's competitive advantage in a race against the US to make quantum cryptography as easy, reliable, and fast as other forms of secure encryption.

The Applied Physics group of the University of Geneva, and its spin-off id Quantique, are playing a key role in a $13 million European project to produce an absolutely unbreakable anti-espionage system.

The EU funded project, dubbed SECOQC, relies on quantum cryptography equipment, which was developed and first commercialized by the Geneva-based researchers.

Holy Grail

The Swiss team is the one to beat, according to the May 3 issue of Optics Express, the online journal of the Optical Society of America.

A report describes a breakthrough by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in transferring quantum keys at high speed and specifically compares it to id Quantique's performance, making the point that NIST's is faster.

If the European project is successful, it will produce the "cryptographer's holy grail" - a code that is absolutely unbreakable," according to a report in the computing industry trade publication, PC World this week.

It will be able to thwart eavesdropping efforts of espionage systems such as the highly secretive Echelon system, which is said to intercept electronic messages on behalf of the intelligence services of the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Pioneer

Two years ago, id Quantique was the first company to propose a commercial quantum cryptography system. It has rapidly come to market with a number of early products and is now installing pilot sites at a private Swiss bank.

"Recently, we have observed that quantum cryptography gained a lot of momentum both at the R&D and commercial level,” said Nicolas Gisin, professor at the University of Geneva.

“[This effort] is another sign that this technology is increasingly recognized as essential for the communication infrastructure of tomorrow."

The European funding will be used to take id Quantique's technology to the next level.

"With the resources allocated in this project, we will be able to accelerate the pace of research in the field of practical quantum cryptography and improve the performance of existing commercial systems," commented Hugo Zbinden, an associate professor at the University of Geneva, who also works at id Quantique.

Limitations

One key development requires is to make it work over greater distances. Today the distances are quite limited.

"We are talking about a system that requires significant technological innovations. We have to prove that it is workable, which is not the case at the moment," Sergio Cova, a professor from the electronics department of Milan Polytechnic told PC World.

The European Commission's name for the project is 'Development of a Global Network for Secure Communication based on Quantum Cryptography'(SECOQC).

A total of 41 participants from twelve countries (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K) are involved in the project.

It is meant to provide the foundation for a global high-security communications network.

by Valerie Thompson

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