DoE Sinks $3M into Quantum Encryption

Much has been made of the aging infrastructure and outdated software tools that are used to protect the power grid in the US from cyber-attack, but a new era of code-breaking quantum computers threatens to give criminals futuretech that rivals any sci-fi movie plot. The Department of Energy is exploring new options to combat future threats with a $3 million grant award for the development of “unhackable” quantum encryption technology.

The money is earmarked for San Diego startup Qubitekk, under the DOE’s Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems (CEDS) program, the nation’s main program for grid security. Qubitekk is best known for creating the world’s first plug-and-play entangled photon generator, the QES1. Like the transistors at the hearts of classical computers, the QES1 enables the flow of information through quantum computers and quantum encryption products – both of which the company is developing. It will be working on the encryption project in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Texas at Austin, Sandia National Laboratory and Pacific Gas & Electric in developing the technology.

Because quantum computers—which have not yet been commercialized—promise to be thousands of times faster than even the most powerful supercomputers, the assumption is that the processing power could be brought to bear for high-level criminal pursuits, including cracking even the toughest encryption methods in seconds. Qubitekk said that at least 11 nations are known to be developing such technology—prompting a need to develop a long-term defense strategy now.

"This Department of Energy funding is another indicator that quantum information technology is moving quickly into critical near-term applications,” said Duncan Earl, founder and CTO of Qubitekk, in a statement. “We will soon see the emergence of a tremendous new market related to quantum-enhanced products. The possibilities for major breakthroughs across multiple disciplines are truly endless.”

The energy sector is already under siege; ICS-CERT earlier in the year reported responding to 198 cyber incidents in fiscal year 2012 across all critical infrastructure sectors. A full 41% of these incidents involved the energy sector, particularly electricity. And the stakes are high.

“As previous grid failures, including the multi-day Northeast blackout of 2003, have shown, any event that causes prolonged power outages over a large area would not only be extremely costly, it would wreak havoc on millions of people’s daily lives and could profoundly disrupt the delivery of essential services, including communications, food, water, health care and emergency response,” explained a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Electric Grid Cybersecurity Initiative, cited by ICS-CERT.

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