Irish cybersecurity quantum leap

Podcast Ep 169: Dr Deirdre Kilbane from the Walton Institute in Waterford on how Ireland is spearheading the future of secure digital networks.

In recent months it emerged that Ireland is at the tip of the spear when it comes to futureproofing the EU’s communications infrastructure and making it secure.

Ireland and the EU are jointly funding a €10m research project to trial 16 quantum security technologies over the next two years.

“By about 2026 there could be a one-in-seven chance of breaking encryption codes. And that goes into a one-in-two chance by 2030. We’re making really big advancements worldwide in developing this quantum communications infrastructure. And it is actually a step ahead of quantum computing”

At the end of April the Quantum Communications Infrastructure Programme held its first face-to-face meeting at the Walton Institute in Waterford with industry leaders and researchers pooling their expertise and resources to significantly improve the security and efficiency of everything from medical devices to phones to the internet of things.

IrelandQCI, the ‘Building a National Quantum Communication Infrastructure for Ireland’ project incorporates integrating innovative and secure quantum devices and systems into conventional communication infrastructures. They will do this by enhancing ESB Telecoms’ optical fibre network with an additional layer of security, all based on quantum physics, in particular quantum key distribution (QKD).

The quantum future of cybersecurity


Waterford’s Walton Institute, in South East Technological University (SETU), is leading the €10m IrelandQCI project, on behalf of SFI CONNECT, within the EU-wide Quantum Communications Infrastructure (EuroQCI) programme. 

Dr Deirdre Kilbane, director of Research at the Walton Institute explained at the time that the IrelandQCI project will advance quantum communications devices to secure the transfer of personal information against cybersecurity attacks.

ThinkBusiness spoke to Dr Kilbane about the important role Ireland will be playing in this field which will be integral to pretty much everything associated with our future lives, from work to health and more. She agreed that winning the project for Ireland is a huge honour for the country.

“It’s a huge honour for me as well to be leading it from the Walton Institute and the South East Technological University on behalf of the Science Foundation Ireland research centre CONNECT and it allows us to bring in the type of quantum technology in enormous quantities that we couldn’t have done before.

“So there’s about €8m worth of funding dedicated to this new disruptive technology. And we’re doing it alongside our collaborators in all of the 27 member states across Europe at the same time. We’re making advancements in building these quantum communication networks, and we’re collaborating with each other to find out what’s the best way to do this? Which technology should we be using? What will we find from our experiences? Then, in the next phase, we will start to make what’s called a pan-European quantum communication infrastructure when we connect it together.”

According to Kilbane, the quantum computing future is closer than we think and it could have some considerable benefits for society.

“It’s going to be able to solve some really, really complex problems. And it will do it much faster than ordinary computers can today. But what happens, even though this can be really, really useful for advancements in medicine, and in material science, for example, it can also bring with it the power of breaking current encryption.

“So our current encryption schemes are based on difficult problems to solve, like trying to find factors, prime factors of very large numbers. So if you take this example, and you multiply two prime numbers and get a really large number, that’s okay. But if you work the other way around, and you try to take a large number and find the prime factors, it can take a really long time on an ordinary computer.”

The bottom line: make encryption stronger than anything hackers even armed with their own quantum computers can crack.

“When you do that with a quantum computer, it can do it really, really quickly, because it the factorisation will happen all at once, nearly. And so this will bring more power to hackers to basically hack current encryption schemes.

“We’re actually going to go to the quantum physics behind the photons that the information is encoded on and we’re going to use the properties of quantum mechanics that each of these photons has to secure the communication links.

“So this is where it’s very different. We’re no longer relying on complex mathematics. Now we can combine a number of methods, like there’s something called post quantum cryptography. And you can layer that in as well you can you can actually combine all these different encryption schemes to really, really make the security as powerful as possible.”

This could be vital for not only protecting critical financial data but perhaps one day doctors operating remotely on patients over internet links via robots. Lives may rely on secure data links being devised here in Ireland.

I mention to Kilbane that hackers always seem to be a few steps ahead of even the biggest cybersecurity players in the world, so it could be a kind of quantum computing arms race between the good guys and the bad actors.

“So the number of qubits available at the moment is not high enough that you could break current encryption schemes. But as the number of qubits increases, it’s estimated by about 2026, there would be quite a bit of probability, like a one-in-seven chance of breaking encryption codes. And that goes into a one-in-two chance by 2030. But we’re making really big advancements worldwide in developing this quantum communications infrastructure. And it is actually a step ahead at the moment of quantum computing.

“In China, they have the most advanced quantum network; a network that spans 4,600 kilometres. And it includes using their satellites, which goes just to demonstrate some of these kinds of key techniques that would be used in a quantum network like quantum entanglement distribution, quantum key distribution networks, and they also have a terrestrial link involving a number of cities. And already they have companies and industries and governments using these networks to secure the transfer of their information.”

While the network in Ireland will be no doubt smaller than China’s, once linked with other European testbeds, it offers the perfect testbed for new quantum communications technologies that are on their way.

Dr Kilbane said the first stage of this network linking Dublin with Waterford will be live before the end of this year and using it as a proving ground for independent quantum key distribution.

“We also reserved about 20% of our funding for some really exciting research to develop the quantum internet. And this will use quantum entanglement distribution and a lot of the devices that are needed for that are not even available yet. So you’re talking about quantum repeaters and quantum memories.

“This is where we have the opportunity in Ireland to start to develop them. So in Trinity College Dublin, in Walton Institute at South East Technological University and in the Tyndall National Institute at the University College Cork, we’re going to have three centres for engineering and testing facilities. And this is where people can come in – companies, industry, government agencies – and have an opportunity to see the technology to see how they could get involved to see if they could maybe develop some of the new technology that’s needed, or if their company would like to use the technology in a different way.”

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John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.