Quantum Crypto Part 3

This is the third in the Quantum Cryptography series of posts. This post covers some of the experiments undertaken in the field already.

The practical utility of a functional system of quantum key distribution (QKD) is exceedingly high. It is perhaps too early to envision a future where all secure transmissions occur over quantum channels, although rapid progress is being made in pursuit of such a lofty goal. Traditional QKD is distance limited, and can only proceed over a single physical channel (either free space or telecommunications fiber, but not at the same time in series due to issues with frequency propagation and modulation [1]). Furthermore, fiber cuts or intensive eavesdropping result in denial of service, rendering a single link effectively useless. However, a QKD network bypasses many of these limitations to a surprising degree, in comparison to standalone QKD systems. This section outlines some of the results that have been obtained in recent years pertaining to the establishment and maintenance of QKD networks.

Quantum Networks

QKD is fundamentally limited by the nature of the links possible between devices; barring exotic protocols that are the subject of ongoing research, almost all QKD protocols deal with point to point distribution of keys, with the goal of establishing a shared secret between a pair of users. This means that a transition to a networked distribution process, where more than two users are involved, is relatively difficult, and must be accomplished through additional protocols layered over the fundamental choice of QKD protocol. [2] characterizes quantum networks in the following ways:

  1. Optically switched quantum networks: In such networks, some optical operation (switching, multiplexing, beam-splitting, etc.) can be used to extend a network to multiple users. This can be done in two ways; passive switching, whereby a single beam of photons may be split into multiple, weaker beams, by randomly splitting single photons [3], or active switching, where two nodes of the network can be connected through a single quantum link by appropriately switching connections at other nodes so as to route the transmission correctly. Both methods effectively extend the quantum channel from one node to another with no interruption, and therefore carries no trust requirement on individual nodes; the same eavesdropping guarantees that secure single pair quantum transmissions are true for switched quantum channels, as the result is effectively a single, uninterrupted quantum channel that extends across multiple nodes [2]. Note, however, that this does not physically extend the range of the network, due to optical losses which effectively reduce the maximum range of the network.

  2. “Full” quantum networks: A true quantum network would need to use quantum repeaters to overcome signal losses over long distances, removing the requirement that intermediate nodes be trusted, much in the same manner as optically switched quantum networks. However, quantum repeaters involve quantum memory and elaborate quantum operations that are currently outside the scope of physical realization, although the quantum memory requirement is being challenged, for instance, by [4]. An alternative would be to use quantum relays, which are simpler, as they do not require quantum memory to implement. However, current technological limitations make quantum relays impractical for arbitrary range extensions.

  3. Trusted Repeater QKD networks: This technique leverages classical memory to store local keys on every node, allowing for secure transmission of information between nodes using the local keys (using a One Time Pad). The local keys are replenished using QKD and are used for both unconditionally secure encryption and authentication. For global key transmission, the global key is sent, hop, by hop, along a series of nodes starting from the source and ending at the destination node. At each hop, the global key is encrypted and authenticated using the local key for that link, guaranteeing security as long as the intermediate nodes are trusted. Details of the security of this network architecture are in [5].

    [2] “Hop-by-hop” transmission of the global key along a path in the network, encrypting/decrypting using local keys at each step. Each colored link represents an identical key pair shared between two neighbouring nodes that is used to encrypt messages between the nodes

It is important to note that the networks under consideration are primarily for the purpose of key distribution. Any other communications between the nodes is immaterial, and could be performed on any channel. In order to simplify treatment and formulation of security guarantees, the key distribution function of the network is entirely decoupled from any other functions it may have. Only distribution is analyzed, under the rationale that secure key distribution leads to provable information theoretic communication using a one time pad.

The DARPA Quantum Network [1]

The DARPA Quantum Network consists of 6 nodes operating through telecommunications fiber between Harvard University, Boston University, and BBN Technologies in Cambridge, and has been in continuous operation since 2004. It is considered the first quantum cryptography network and the first QKD systems operating continuously over a metropolitan area.


The network uses four different kinds of hardware systems:

  1. BBN Mark 2 Weak-Coherent System: The core system transmits phase modulated photons over telecommunications fiber, using a Mach Zehnder interferometer to randomly modulate 1550nm laser pulses to one of four phases, thereby encoding both a basis and a value. The modulated pulses are augmented by bright pulses multiplexed over the same fiber to provide timing and framing information. On the receiving end, another interferometer randomly set to one of two phases performs demodulation, followed by by routing to one of two cooled InGaAs detectors.

  2. BBN/BU Mark 1 Entangled System: A BB84-based system utilizing polarization-entangled photon pairs that are transmitted over telecommunications fiber. The basis value pairs needed for transmission are encoded by polarization modulation, with random basis selection performed by a beam splitter in a purely passive fashion. Phase modulation is carried out using an external source of randomness that drives carefully tuned interferometers. A key aspect of the system is the incorporation of polarization controls in order to mitigate the polarization scrambling effect of telecommunications fiber. Errors are caused by significant attenuation resulting from the interferometers and beam-splitters used, as well as the fiber itself. Detector dark count introduces additional errors in the form of spurious detection events, all of which contribute to an increase in the Quantum Bit Error Rate of the system.

  3. NIST Freespace System [6]: Four vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCELs) are used to produce 250 picosecond pulses with a high extinction ratio, providing the quantum sources for the system. The pulses are then attenuated and coupled to freespace optics, where they are collimated and lineary polarized either vertically or in the $\pi/4$ direction, after which they are shaped to fill the output aperture of the transmission telescope. At the receiving end, an identical telescope receives the beam, passing it through a non-polarizing beam-splitting cube that performs a random choice of polarization basis, and then a polarizing beam-splitting cube that measures the value of the polarization through a fiber-couple detection box.

  4. QinetiQ Freespace System [7]: A BB84-based four-laser faint-pulse transmission system is used to create the four alternative polarization states, generating pulses at a rate of 10MHz. On the receiving side, measurement is performed automatically using avalanche photodiodes (APDs), after which software mechanisms perform sifting, error correction and privacy amplification to generate a secure key. The key characteristics of the system are compactness and portability, providing a final key exchange rate of about 1kbit/s at a range of 40m.


At a high level, the systems used in the network perform the following basic functions in order to arrive at a shared key:

  1. Sifting: Reconciliation of the raw secret bit streams as described in the section on the BB84 protocol. This removes errors resulting from failed detection (due to transmission losses, photons lost to eavesdropping without replacement, or detector inefficiencies), wrong basis choice (where Bob does in fact detect the transmitted photon, but randomly selected the wrong basis in which to measure it), or multiple detection events (where multiple detectors fire on Bob’s end, as a result of which Bob cannot determine whether the symbol transmitted is a one or a zero, and therefore must discard it). This is done by public communication, after which only both parties end up with highly correlated “sifted” bits. The DARPA network implements both classic and SARG04 sifting.

  2. Error Detection and Correction: Elimination of bits damaged during transmission, which is an inherently probabilistic process that reveals information to an eavesdropper Eve. The end result is that both parties end up with identical copies of a secret bit string with high probability, about which an eavesdropper Eve has some information. The QBER may also be estimated in this stage. The DARPA network implements a modification of the Cascade protocol as well a Forward Error Correction technique called Niagra [8] that is designed by BBN. The Niagra protocol offers reduced communications overhead, error correction delay, and CPU usage, at the expense of a small decrease in coding efficiency. [1].

  3. Entropy estimation: An accurate estimate of the amount of entropy in the sifted bits, beyond what Eve might have information about, is a necessary input to the privacy amplification step, and so is crucial for the security of a QKD system. The DARPA network implements four measures of this entropy, the details of which may be found in [1].

  4. Privacy Amplification: As detailed in previous sections, this allows Alice and Bob to reduce the amount of information gleaned by Eve about their shared bits to some low acceptable level. The DARPA network uses a linear hash function over the Galois Field $GF[2^n]$ (corresponding to polynomials with coefficient $0$ or $1$ and degree less than $n$), where $n$ is the number of error-corrected bits in a transmission. The QKD node that initiates amplification selects the number of bits $m$ of the resulting hash, the primitive polynomial of the field, a multiplier $n$ and an $m$ bit polynomial to add to the product. Each side now has the information required to construct the hash, which is truncated to $m$ bits and used to perform privacy amplification.

  5. Authentication: In this phase, Alice and Bob assure each other that they are really exchanging information with each other, and not with Eve, with high probability. The DARPA network uses the existing authentication mechanisms of the Internet security architecture to perform authentication. This relies on pre-shared secret keys, although extensions using Universal Hashing are possible, which allow continuous authentication using secret bits derived from continuous QKD.


The DARPA network represented a huge step forward in the implementation of quantum networks, showing that it is viable to conduct QKD in a reliable, practically autonomous fashion over a relatively widespread geographic area. The consolidation of multiple QKD technologies and the close partnership between government agencies, research institutions, and industry were a promising forerunner of the kind of progress to expect in future years, and the promises made by the success of this endeavor have been borne out in the subsequent proliferation of QKD implementations, notably the SECOQC [9] project.

QKD secured bank transfer [10]

One of the most widely touted applications for a practical QKD system is securing financial transfers. The first step in this direction was taken in 2004, when researchers set up the first real-world application of an entangled-state quantum cryptography protocol based on BB84. The generated keys were used to secure an online wire transfer from the Vienna City Hall to the headquarters of Bank-Austria Creditanstalt.

Keeping in mind the theoretical vulnerability of pulse-based BB84 implementations to photon number splitting (PNS) attacks, the system in question used entangled photon pairs [11], in a modification of the BB84. In such a system, the information to be transferred was stored in correlations between the results of measurements on the individual photons of the pair. Furthermore, the randomness of the generated key in such a system arises from the quantum randomness of the measurement itself, and does not rely on an external source of randomness, as attenuated laser pulse systems do.

The photon source was a compact device based on type-II spontaneous parametric down-conversion, which produces entangled pairs with orthogonal polarizations. The produced pair was then split up, with one photon being sent to Alice directly, and the other sent to Bob through 1.45km of optical fiber specially installed through the Viennese sewer system. The associated computations for key distillation were carried out on a dedicated QKD hardware device [12]. Classical communication was carried out over a TCP/IP connection through an Ethernet bridge. The average QBER over the entire run time of the experiment was less than 8%, of which 2.6% came from detection imperfections and 1.2% came from imperfect production of the entangled states, neither of which can be exploited by an eavesdropper and hence can be excluded from the QBER factor in the calculations required for privacy amplification. The resulting system had a raw transmission rate of 80 bits/s after error correction and privacy amplification, which is impressive for a first-use demo, but has been superseded by newer technologies, as will be discussed in later sections.

The experiment carried out here marks an important milestone in the practical development of QKD, demonstrating the viability of real-time quantum cryptography systems in a realistic environment. The success of this work clearly foreshadows the later successes of quantum cryptography, such as its use in the Geneva elections of 2007, discussed later, and the increasingly ambitious projects involving the establishment of QKD networks seen in later years.

Geneva Elections

The 2007 Geneva elections saw the first commercial use of quantum cryptography, where ID Quantique’s (IDQ) Cerberis system was used to secure the transmission of vote counts from the central ballot-counting station to the government data center [13]. The version of Cerberis used consisted of quantum key servers on both ends for key generation, as well as a gigabit Ethernet link that carried the encrypted transmissions [14]. The keys generated by the quantum link were used to transmit a 256-bit AES key, which was then used to provide secure point-to-point communication between the counting station and the data center by encrypting all messages between the two centers. As an additional security guarantee, both the AES key and the quantum key were renewed upto 60 times an hour in both directions [15].

Secure Communications based on Quantum Cryptography [9]

Between 2004 and 2008, 41 European research and industrial organizations worked together with the goal of producing a scalable system of QKD with an average link length of about 25km, demonstrating the practical utility of the technologies developed so far that are capable of supporting secure quantum transmissions, under a project titled Secure Communications based on Quantum Cryptography (SECOQC). The highlight of this work consists in the systematic development of a design that allows unrestricted scalability and interoperability of QKD technologies. The development of an internal communications standard (titled the Q3P) communications interface was instrumental, allowing QKD devices to communicate seamlessly with higher network layers. The entire infrastructure of the project is based around a single modular design utilizing the trusted repeater network paradigm.


Each node in the SECOQC architecture is built as the composition of two modules, denoting a separation of concerns. A single node has many functions; it must manage QKD keys generated over QKD links, ensure encryption and decryption services for key transport across links, communicate with other devices in a classical manner, manage keys internally, and provide other cryptographic services (for key distillation and privacy amplification, for instance). Given this, the responsibilities of the node are split between the two modules, called the node module and the QKD device. The node module performs the network functions required, facilitating classical communications, providing cryptography services, managing keys, etc.). It interfaces with the QKD module to obtain the local QKD key that it then uses to communicate securely with other nodes on the network. The QKD device has the sole responsibility of communication over the quantum channel, followed by key distillation and storing it in the classical node module. This design allows for the use of arbitrary QKD devices, as long as they adhere to a common interface detailed by the project, which means that the network can be scaled up easily through the addition of a variety of QKD devices. Another factor in the easy scaling of the network is the fact that the number of keys that must be stored increases linearly with the network size, as opposed to quadratically. This is because, in the network graph, only neighbouring nodes need to store link keys corresponding to the edge connecting them, as opposed to every pair of nodes having to store keys in other network topologies.

The SECOQC network itself consists of six nodes connected by eight quantum links, with deployment taking place in 2008 and a public demonstration taking place during a QKD conference in October, 2008. The demo involved a one-time pad encrypted telephone communication, a secure video conference involving all deployed nodes, and a number of rerouting experiments. In line with the focus of SECOQC’s work, the various transmissions that were part of the demo took place, strictly speaking, over classical channels. The keys used to secure these channels were derived using the QKD network, fulfilling the objective of the project to create a robust, extensible quantum distribution network.


Six different QKD systems were prototyped in Vienna as part of the project:

  1. Three upgraded ‘Cerberis’ systems from the Swiss company id Quantique, which are plug and play pairs that can be used to set up a QKD link. This system employs phase coding to carry out the BB84 protocol and the SARG [16] protocol (a modification of BB84 that is ideal for weak Poissonian sources). Multiple results testify to high reliability of id Quantique systems, which was used for ballot counting in the Swiss national elections of 2007, and have been used for the same purpose in each election in the Geneva canton. The performance of the upgraded system over a distance of 25km equated to a secret key rate of 1kbit/s.

  2. One-way weak coherent pulse system with decoy states (Tosh) using a phase-encoding QKD system with two interferometers, stabilized by pulses that are time multiplexed with the quantum signals. The protocol implemented is a weak coherent pulse (WCP) decoy state + vacuum state BB84 variant, the details of which can be found in [17]. The distinguishing feature is the use of decoy states in order to estimate expected signal pulse losses, followed by termination of the protocol if the estimated loss is much lower than the experimentally observed loss. This is a remediation technique for the photon-number-splitting attack against BB84, where an eavesdropper surreptitiously diverts some fraction of the transmitted photons. The key rate for a fiber length of 25km was found to be 5.7 kbit/s, almost six times higher than the required rate in the SECOQC specification. Furthermore, these rates are almost a hundredfold improvement over BB84 without decoy pulses [18].

  3. A coherent-one-way (COW) system that is an experimental realization of distributed phase reference protocols. The COW protocol is distantly related to the BB84 protocol, with the addition of a third basis (corresponding to time-of-arrival)) and using one of the original bases only to ensure coherence [19]. At a high level, Alice either sends pulses of weak coherent states or completely blocks the beam (corresponding to vacuum pulses). Bob then uses an interferometer and time-of-arrival measurements to distinguish between bit values and check the coherence of each pulse. The interferometer information provides indicates of eavesdropping. Further details may be found in [20].

  4. A polarization entanglement QKD system (Ent) that supports concurrent active stabilization of the optical elements for stable long-term automated operation. This system implements the BBM92 [21] protocol, and includes numerous active automated stabilization modules, allowing for completely autonomous startup and continued uninterrupted service. A reliable key rate of about 2 kbit/s was observed for its operation during the SECOQC demonstration, and a more nuanced discussion of the system may be found in [22].

  5. A continuous variables (CV) system with Gaussian modulation, reverse reconciliation and homodyne detection of the coherent light pulses. The key information is stored in both quadratures of a coherent state of the electromagnetic field, which can then be measured using homodyne detection. The quadratures are simply the operators defined by $\hat{p} = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}(\hat{a}^\dagger + \hat{a})$ and $\hat{q} = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}(\hat{a}^\dagger - \hat{a})$, where $\hat{a}$ and $\hat{a}^\dagger$ are the annihilation and creation operators of the electromagnetic field. The process goes as follows; Alice generates coherent laser pulses that are split into a weak signal and a strong local oscillator (LO). The signal is then randomly modulated according to a centered Gaussian distribution in both quadratures. The LO and the signal are then time and polarization multiplexed and transmitted to Bob on the same physical optical fiber. At Bob’s end, the two signals are combined and converted into an electric signal using a homodyne detector, where the term homodyne simply refers to the fact that the LO and the signal pulse are both derived from the same light source. The output signal is proportional to the quadrature of the signal, which depends on the phase difference between the LO and the signal. Bob randomly picks either no phase difference or a difference of $\pi/2$ to select one of the two quadratures for measurement. Details of the protocol may be found in [23].

  6. A free space link, using the BB84 protocol with decoy states [17] and polarization encoded laser pulses.


The SECOQC network is a powerful testament to the progress made in the practical implementation of QKD networks using the trusted repeater paradigm. It serves as a landmark in paving the way for seamless integration of QKD devices into higher level network layers through the development of native protocols (Q3P, QKD-NL and QKD-TL) and by exemplifying the performance, stability and robustness of a modular architecture that separates QKD from classical networking functions. The innovative core of the project can be boiled down to the concentration of all QKD functions into a single node device, which makes it easy to add links and grow the network when required, enhancing the scalability properties of the network. Most importantly, the demonstration carried out as part of the project shows that it is possible to perform every day functions (telephony and video conferencing, for instance) in a secure manner, building off of the inherent security of the QKD paradigm.


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