Delft scientists at work

In recent years, online privacy and security has taken up increasing space in the public’s imagination. Stolen credit card details, hijacked social media accounts, and government spying programs are just a few of the problems that have people worried. Our lives online have become just as important as our lives in the real-world. What if quantum communications could offer potential solutions?

Scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have recently made a significant advancement in quantum teleportation – a technique central to the development of a more powerful and secure version of the internet that relies on quantum technology. Although this technique cannot make objects disappear and reappear, it does allow for information to be moved from one place to another without traversing physical space. This is made possible by entanglement, a phenomenon in quantum physics that allows us to look at one entangled particle (or group of particles) and know things about the other, even if those particles are separated by vast distances. In theory, this information will teleport in such a way that it could not be intercepted and read by hackers. The Delft team managed to teleport this information across three locations, where this was previously only possible with two. While this may sound like a small achievement, it is a significant step in developing quantum networks which will lay the eventual basis for a quantum internet that would allow for highly secure communication.

The potential of a quantum internet

Practical use for the quantum internet is expected to be a long way away. Nevertheless, this technology is expected to provide a solution to current problems relating to security and privacy in the internet age. This issue has been of growing concern to the public and governments. Tech giants such as Facebook and Google are facing heightened scrutiny over failing to prevent data breaches which have exposed large quantities of sensitive information collected from their users. Meanwhile, as conflict has shifted from the battlefield to the internet, cyber-attacks in the form of industrial sabotage have become increasingly prevalent. Last year’s ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, a major U.S. oil pipeline, highlighted major vulnerabilities caused by the integration of critical infrastructure into the Internet of Things. With its highly secure communication capabilities, a quantum internet could prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

However, it is also likely that the development of a quantum internet will inadvertently create new problems. The same technology that could prevent the leakage of sensitive personal information and the disruption of infrastructure could also cloak the operations of malicious actors if they acquire it. Law enforcement and government surveillance programs will have to divert their focus from intercepting digital communication to the more vulnerable human elements of these operations.

Additionally, advancements in quantum computing will mean that current encryption methods will become obsolete in the face of more powerful quantum computers. To prevent floods of data from eventually being leaked or stolen by malicious actors, institutions such as banks, hospitals and businesses should be prepared to invest in the time-consuming process of upgrading their systems to post-quantum encryption as soon as possible.

Ethical considerations

These powerful capabilities also mean that it will be important to consider who has access to quantum communication technology. Actors who have put large resources into researching and developing a quantum internet, such as national governments, technology conglomerates and universities, will have a significant first-mover advantage in terms of how this technology is used. For example, governments will have the know-how and authority to regulate a quantum internet in a way that favours their interests. Legislation could restrict the use of quantum encryption tools to those which have a backdoor that will enable the state to decrypt the information they protect. We need also to consider the likelihood of commercial monopolies putting corporate profitability before users’ interests.

The Delft team believes those scenarios to be unlikely and argue that the quantum internet will evolve in a similar way as the classical (current) internet – as an infrastructure managed in a decentralised fashion by the public, corporations, and governments. In any case, it will still be important for the public to consider how they want a quantum internet to be governed. With the current net neutrality debate over whether internet service providers should be able to charge different rates for different users still raging, it is highly likely that quantum internet governance will become a contentious issue in the future. Whether the public will trust the actors which control the development of a quantum internet to make ethical decisions about its implementation remains to be seen.