University of Calgary

Keeping our information safe for the long term

University of Calgary and SAIT researchers demonstrate sharing of secret keys using quantum technology

July 13, 2011

Today’s communication security is threatened by faster computers and better code-breaking algorithms, and will become obsolete with the advent of the quantum computer. Researchers at the University of Calgary and SAIT Polytechnic have demonstrated that they can send an unbreakable quantum key between the institutions. This is a significant milestone in Canada.

“The unique partnership between these two Campus Alberta institutions demonstrates our province’s collaborative spirit and our drive to innovate,” said Greg Weadick, minister of advanced education and technology. “This technology is ahead-of-its-time and the potential commercial applications could be a big step forward for Alberta’s knowledge-based economy.”

Often, information needs to be kept secure for 50 years or more, meaning the encryption method must withstand technological and algorithmic advances over time. Quantum encryption is advanced technology that can withstand these tests, while current encryption methods do not.

“This technology enables long-term safeguarding of personal, industry and government information,” said Dr. Wolfgang Tittel, a professor at the University of Calgary in the Faculty of Science and the NSERC/GDC/Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures Industry Chair in Quantum Cryptography and Communication.

“This technology outperforms currently available commercial systems in several aspects and highlights Alberta as an area with practical quantum communication capabilities.”

Tittel and his research team have demonstrated that they can send a signal between the University of Calgary and SAIT using photons over fibre-optic cables used in traditional telecommunications. This signal, essentially a key that will later on be used to lock and retrieve information by means of encryption, cannot be copied or eavesdropped on without notice. If this happens, then this key will change, the legitimate sender and receiver will know that an interloper is trying to eavesdrop, and they won’t use the key any more.

The multi-disciplinary approach and collaboration between the University of Calgary and SAIT is a unique aspect of Dr. Tittel’s program.

“This is a new type of collaboration that emphasizes a modern, problem-solving approach and requires experimental and theoretical skills stretching across a large variety of intellectual and technical boundaries,” said Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary. “The work done by researchers at the University of Calgary and SAIT will help to encourage new programs in training first-class technicians and researchers to work in this area.”

Students and faculty in both institutions have been actively engaged in the project.

“As a polytechnic, SAIT is dedicated to advancing technology, integrating innovation into the classroom, and transferring that innovation to the community. This project has been a great fit for our students, with the additional advantage of strengthening SAIT’s applied research connection with the University of Calgary,” said Irene Lewis, president and CEO of SAIT.

Gary Albach, president and CEO of Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures added, "The success of this research is a result that could only be achieved with the holistic approach Alberta is taking to promote technology innovation. This type of collaboration among the University, SAIT, General Dynamics Canada and AITF is what really puts the power to succeed behind bright researchers like Dr. Tittel and his team."

Tittel established his lab in fall 2006 and was funded by the government of Alberta, through Alberta Innovates - Technology Futures, formerly iCORE, the federal government, though NSERC, as well as General Dynamics Canada, the industry partner on this project. His team currently comprises 17 members, including B.Sc., M.Sc. and PhD students, as well as post-doctoral fellows and technical and administrative personnel from the University of Calgary and SAIT.