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India is about to join the league of select advanced countries who are developing quantum technology for secure communication. QNu Labs, a Bengaluru-based startup, will provide Indian military Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) technology which is considered unhackable.

After successful trials, Indian Army is issuing Request For Proposal to QNu Labs for procurement of QKD systems. Defence Secretary Dr Ajay Kumar has termed the event as a befitting success story of Aatmanirbhar Bharat because QNu Labs has developed the technology indigenously. India joins the US, Canada, China and a few European countries which are developing QKD for strategic and commercial uses.

The QKD project was curated by Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) and Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO). Launched in April 2018, iDEX is a defense tech incubator that aims to achieve self-reliance and foster innovation. QNu Labs had won an Open Challenge launched by iDEX.

In February this year, DRDO and IIT Delhi demonstrated a QKD link between Prayagraj and Vindhyachal in Uttar Pradesh, a distance of more than 100 kilometres.   

QKD may sound like just another esoteric tech, but its application has far-reaching implications for everyone. That's why many countries are rushing to build QKD for both military and civil uses.

What is QKD?

QKD is a data encryption technology based on quantum mechanics as opposed to the existing encryption technologies which are based on mathematics. As power of computing rises, existing data encryption methods based on complex mathematical calculations will not remain as secure.

QKD is so called because it encrypts data in quantum states. Roughly speaking, an unknown quantum state gets disturbed when it is measured. QKD uses this principle to secure communication between two parties from malicious third-party eavesdropping.

For two parties to communicate securely, QKD produces a shared random key which is used to encrypt and decrypt messages. QKD encodes each bit of the key on a single photon, a particle of light, transmitted through optical fiber. If a third party tries to eavesdrop, it must measure the key in some way. Any attempt to measure the photons alters their encoding. And that alters the key, alerting the two parties to the anomaly.

According to Toshiba, a market leader in QKD, unlike other existing security solutions, QKD is secure from all future advances in mathematics and computing, including the data processing power of a quantum computer.

Why does QKD matter so much?

Since everything involves communication channels these days, any disruption in a channel can cause havoc. You can lose your privacy, your money or, if someone hacks the electricity grid, the power at your home. Firms can lose money and confidential business data to hackers. During a war, a country can be totally disabled by hacking into its defence and infrastructure systems. In short, data security has become as important as the security of life.

As computing technology advances, there are new ways to hack into computer networks. Interestingly, just when quantum computing threatens existing encryption methods, the world is looking at QKD, a solution based on quantum mechanics itself.

Spread of internet technologies at a maddening speed in every sphere of life may have made life easier, but it has also left us vulnerable. We are as secure as our data. Defence, banking, aerospace, health, corporate, pharmaceuticals and critical R&D sectors will benefit from QKD technology since security of data is of key importance in these sectors.

Why is QKD important for India?

Though any country would want to have the latest technology for its defence systems, the one-word answer to the question why India needs it so much is China.

If we believe claims made by China, it is miles ahead of India in QKD. While India has demonstrable capacity for QKD linkage over a distance of 100 kilometres, China claims to have built a QKD network spanning 4,600 km—the longest in the world—which includes a link between Shanghai and Beijing.

Since QKD works the best through fibre-optic transmission, it needs elaborate physical infrastructure. Even that has limits because signals attenuate over long-distance transmission. Free-space transmission through satellites is an option, though that too has its challenges as photons are sensitive to light. Satellite transmission doesn’t rule out attenuation of signal. It is at an initial stage of development but China is leading this effort.

Last month, China’s Lijian quick-response rocket carried to space a satellite that will conduct QKD experiments in lower-Earth orbit. In 2016, China launched the world’s first QKD satellite Mozi and achieved QKD transmission between two ground stations 2,600 km apart.

Thanks to Mozi, free-space QKD transmission is part of China’s Beijing-Shanghai network. Such a large QKD network is not possible with optical fibre cables. Mozi also plays critical role in China's public infrastructure. China's electricity grid, the largest in the world, is secured with free-space QKD technology through Mozi. 

It's plain to see that a China protected by QKD technology won't need a war to defeat an India that has just conventional protection for its communication systems. A series of cyber attacks can disable India to the extent that it won't remain able to fight effectively.

India too has demonstrated free-space QKD capacity but it just doesn't compare with China. Last year, Indian Space Research Organisation demonstrated free-space QKD communication over a distance of just 300 meters. China claims to have that capacity for thousands of kilometres. The transmission was demonstrated at Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, between two line-of-sight buildings on the campus. 

If you believe China’s claims and compare them to India’s achievement, India has a long way to go.

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