People 'n' Issues

Can quantum cryptography save the world?

November 30th, 2017
Quantum cryptography can ensure an ultra-secure future for the financial sector despite the evolving threats they face, writes RONALD RAVEL, Director B2B South Africa, Toshiba South Africa
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With an increasingly connected world spurring on the perpetual rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), data is firmly establishing itself as the dominant fuel within many organisations, being central to the way they work. This data proliferation is taking place at an exponential rate – so much so that Cisco predicts a huge 14.1 zettabytes of data will be present in the cloud in 2020, compared to only 3.9 zettabytes in 2015.

With this shift taking place, encryption is an increasingly well-regarded protection tool in cybersecurity: over 80 per cent of mobile device data is encrypted – a significantly greater percentage than corporate data, despite its generally more revealing content. All data though, whether in the cloud or on devices, is a target for potential hackers. As the financial industry handles a significant amount of highly sensitive and valuable data, including Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of customers, focused attacks are to be expected.

Recent research found that the average cost of a data breach in South Africa is R32,36-million, a 12% increase since 2016. According to the study, these data breaches cost companies on average R1 632 ($124) per lost or stolen record.

The study shows how quickly an organisation can contain data breach incidents has a direct impact on financial consequences. The cost of a data breach was nearly R5-million lower on average for organisations that were able to contain a data breach in less than 30 days compared to those that look longer than 30 days.

As the foundations of computing begin to change from maths to physics with the introduction of quantum computing, so must the financial industry evolve the way it protects its data to ensure optimum and future-proofed security. Global Industry Analysts forecasts quantum computing’s global market to reach $2 billion by 2024, and it will pay dividends to keep abreast of its evolution. Quantum cryptography is emerging from this ongoing development as a strong protection method, necessary to combat ever-increasing security threats.

The building blocks of quantum cryptography

Quantum cryptography produces a message unreadable to all except its explicit recipient, due to the fundamental physics law of observation: to observe something is to change it. This specific type of quantum computing is known as Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), as whoever is receiving the message will still need a transmitted ‘key’ to decode its contents. Encryption is brought into a new era of online security by precisely how QKD communicates: keys are transmitted as photons, and usually light particles. If third-party interception is detected, the key instantaneously transforms state, rendering its contents indecipherable and, thus, useless. This change of state also indicates to the recipient that the transmission’s contents have been compromised. Until interference, QKD particles are able to exist simultaneously in more than one place and state, only having to select a behaviour upon coming into contact with something else – such as a hacker.

Toshiba works at the forefront of quantum cryptography, recently making a breakthrough at its Cambridge Research Laboratory by creating the world’s fastest QKD device. Approximately seven times faster than Toshiba’s previous record speed of 1.9Mbps, a speed of 13.7Mbps has now been achieved. Such a development brings the wider, practical utilisation of quantum technology one step closer.

Quantum cryptography’s role in shaping the security of the financial sector

Cost presently restricts the mainstream use of quantum cryptography, with it likely to be some while before the technology is widely-utilised. Now, however, is the best time to prepare in order to stay ahead in the race between hackers and cryptographers, both of whom stand to benefit from the new technology. A significant threat to the integrity of financial data in the cloud is the technique of harvest and decrypt. Already being deployed by cybercriminals, this technique sees sensitive files, which could include information such as account holders’ addresses and names, scraped and stored by malicious parties until they have the capability in the future to decipher the contents with quantum computers (the power of which vastly outstrips that of a classic computer). Even currently secure data is, therefore, already vulnerable to the hackers of the future. Vigilance now, with the security tools presently available, is crucial – it avoids attracting a cybercriminal’s attention as either an immediate data breach target or future harvest victim.

The financial industry must also recognise that leaked data doesn’t only cost in terms of the danger of personal and business critical data being readily obtainable online. Reputations will also be damaged, possibly irreparably, and the monetary cost will be high.

Quantum cryptography has the ability to usher in a new age of ‘unhackable’ online communication – as long as the finance industry ensures that education and awareness also remain high on the agenda. Support for IT decision makers will be vital in maintaining robust data security now and in the future, ensuring a mindset agile enough to update methods when the time comes. Cybercriminals often lead the way with new and inventive hacking methods – with quantum computing, financial organisations need to move to a preventative rather than reactive IT security infrastructure, or by the time they address any attack it will be too late. By understanding how quantum cryptography can work to fill the gaps in online defences, such as with the protection of abandoned historic data, the financial sector will be well-placed to stay one step ahead of any complex threats in the future.

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