The notion of harnessing the physics of quantum mechanics for a massive leap in computing power is firmly in the realm of science. But many people believe that applying these techniques to secure commercial communications is far more feasible.
Duncan Earl is one of them. He’s the chief technology officer of GridCom Technologies, a startup which recently secured seed funding to build a prototype quantum encryption system designed specifically for the electricity grid. The company’s hope is to have a demonstration system working next year near its home base in San Diego. Utilities would pay about $50 a month for access to a software service and hardware that encrypt critical communications in an area.
With GridCom Technologies, Earl is trying to make critical infrastructure more secure by encrypting data send to grid control systems. Traditional encryption techniques can’t work at the low latency speeds—measured in milliseconds–required for SCADA systems, which leaves them vulnerable to attack. Earl is an expert in optical technologies who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and helped spin out an optical lighting company in 2006.
GridCom Technology’s system works by generating two photons using a laser and storing them in optical fiber cables. These twin photons each have an opposition polarization—either a wave oscillating up and down or left and right, Duncan explains. According to quantum mechanics, if one tries to measure these photons, it will change the state of the other and the photons are no longer “entangled.” This phenomenon allows a communications system to detect if a message has been intercepted.