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July 7, 2023updated 10 Jul 2023 11:01am

HSBC joins BT’s quantum-secure network

The bank has become the first to join the new network, with a link between its headquarters and a data centre 62km away.

By Ryan Morrison

Banking giant HSBC will connect to a new post-quantum cryptography network in London run by BT and Toshiba. It is one of a number of solutions the bank is exploring in the hope of forestalling the threat from quantum computers. While it is likely to take a decade or more before quantum computers can crack conventional cryptography, the growing problem of “store now, decrypt later” is pushing the issue up the agenda.

HSBC will send data over a quantum secured network between its Canary Wharf HQ and a datacentre in Berkshire (Photo:  Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com)
HSBC will send data over a quantum-secured network between its Canary Wharf HQ and a data centre in Berkshire. (Photo Steve Heap/Shutterstock)

HSBC is the first bank to join the new “quantum-secure metro network” led by BT and Toshiba. The network uses quantum-secure algorithms to provide point-to-point security for data transferred between two locations. In this case, it is the 62km between the bank’s global headquarters in Canary Wharf and a data centre in Berkshire. This includes transferring data to and from an AWS edge device, to put cloud technology through its paces.

The aim is to see how well a quantum-secure network stands up against current and future cybersecurity threats, as well as attacks from quantum computers as they become powerful enough to crack current encryption methods. Eventually, the techniques could be deployed across the full HSBC global operation. 

The commercially available infrastructure is built by BT and Toshiba using fibre optic cables with all data secured end-to-end using either quantum key distribution or post-quantum cryptography protocols. It’s designed to be a commercial testbed as companies in London and surrounding areas come to grips with the requirements of encryption in the quantum era.

This is an early public foray into the world of quantum technologies for HSBC. Global head of quantum technologies, Phil Intallura, told Tech Monitor: “We need to start working on these different types of technologies and trials now.” He says there is no specific switchover timeline as “the new protocols have not yet been standardised by NIST, and so we won’t implement anything until that standardisation has happened.”

HSBC waits on NIST quantum standards

NIST is the US government body for standards and technology. It has been working on a program aimed at finding algorithms that are unlikely to be cracked by quantum computers and so can be widely deployed. It announced four algorithms last year that are likely to make it through to the final stage. These are post quantum cryptography methods and a final set of standards are likely to be revealed next year.

Intallura says the BT network is designed to be a commercial trial as the idea behind it is to connect real-world commercial sites, bringing other companies online in the future. For this experiment, HSBC is specifically trialling the use of quantum key distribution, which securely shares encryption keys between two parties using the principles of quantum mechanics. Effectively any attempt to intercept the keys would disturb the quantum state and ensure they can’t be unlocked.

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The move could have far-reaching implications for the financial services sector, providing information into quantum applications that could be central to the future of secure financial transactions. HSBC says it has a team of quantum scientists, cybercrime experts and financial specialists who will analyse the data gained during the experiment.

It is assumed that quantum key distribution will play a central role in protecting financial transactions, client data and proprietary information throughout the financial services sector. It is a large sector with some 4.5 billion payments processed by HSBC alone – worth an estimated £3.5trn. The electronic payments rely on cryptography to protect them from cyberattack and while quantum computers are currently unable to crack these secure algorithms, hackers are stealing the encrypted data with the expectation that will change within the next decade. 

How quantum key distribution can secure bank data

In future, quantum key distribution (QKD) could be used to secure data between the cloud, a data centre and a quantum computer for processing. Ensuring that at every stage the information is secure from attack. Intallura says it’s unlikely QKD will be the most widely used of the post-quantum cybersecurity approaches, but will be useful for hypersensitive data.

“QKD requires physical infrastructure so there will only be certain use cases and areas we will use it,” he says. “It’s unlikely that it will be a scaled solution in the near term, [but] that is where post-quantum cryptography comes in.”

Unlike QKD, post-quantum cryptography is “not information-theoretic secure,” Intallura says, meaning it could be broken by a hacker with unlimited resources and time. But, he says, the technology is “much more scalable”. The trial allows the bank to test hyper-secure use cases between strategic sites.

Colin Bell, CEO of HSBC Bank and HSBC Europe, said customers expect safe and secure operations when it comes to sensitive data, as well as resilient cybersecurity “so we must stay ahead of the curve.” This, he says, includes preparing for the future when quantum computers are widespread by recruiting specialists and testing solutions. “Today’s milestone proves the importance of collaboration and demonstrates the significant innovation and progress that can be achieved when industry leaders join forces,” he added.

BT Chief Security and Networks Officer Howard Watson described this as the “next era for network security”, trailing and developing techniques that demonstrate the power of quantum communications. “It’s critical we ensure our digital infrastructure remains secure against new quantum-based threats,” he said.

Read more: Microsoft sets out quantum supercomputing roadmap

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