A New Line of Defence: Why Single Photon Technology Is the Key to Cybersecurity

Single photon technology could be our best hope for staying safe online in the future. By finding ways to deliver photons one at a time, we can unlock some truly amazing possibilities, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity.


Light particles are called photons and they are essential to most modern technology. A photon is the smallest indivisible quantity of light. Quantum physics tells us that all objects can be broken down into particles and waves. So, devices such as fibre-optic broadband and smartphone screens operate by mobilising billions of photons at a time.


Large streams of photons are great for smartphones and broadband, but useless for other tasks. Scientists are currently battling to master single photon technology. Let’s take a look at how single photon technology works, and how it can be applied in the real world.


Avoiding the banana skin


There are many potential application of single photons, but first we have to learn to control them. Detecting single photons has long been a challenge for scientists. MIT Technology Review call it a ‘potential banana skin’ because it frequently trips up would be researchers.  The difficulty is explained by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which basically states that, because certain variables of particles are inextricably linked, the more exactly you know one, the harder it is to determine the other.


This means that, at a quantum level, it is theoretically impossible to simultaneously determine the momentum and the position of a particle. In the case of photons, scientists have been able to solve this problem by creating them in pairs and using the first as a signal that the second, the target photon, is about to arrive.


Unhackable messages


The power of single photons lies in the ability to encode them with information. This can be sent over long distances and read in a similar way to Morse Code. Instead of listening for long or short beeps, the receiver reads the information based on the physical orientation of the photons – known as polarisation. In the past photons could be encoded with only one bit of information, a form of binary code. However, scientists recently found a way to drastically increase their potential storage.


This has huge potential benefits in the field of quantum cryptography– using photons to transmit messages securely. Current encryption techniques will not stand up to the computers of the future, but quantum cryptography is theoretically unhackable. This is because observing photons mid-journey changes their properties, and so any attempt to intercept a message would be immediately obvious. As Thomas Jennewein, a physicist from the University of Waterloo in Canada says, “It’s secure by the laws of nature.” Earlier this month Chinese Researchers hosted the world’s first quantum encrypted video call, proving the viability of the technology.  Cybersecurity will be of utmost importance in the future and single photon technology could be our strongest defence.


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