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Vodafone partners with IBM on quantum-safe cybersecurity

Quantum computers will be able to crack modern cryptography in a matter of hours when the technology matures. Vodafone wants to be prepared.

By Ryan Morrison

Telecoms giant Vodafone is working with IBM to secure its network against the risk of future quantum computers that could crack existing cryptography including public key encryption. The deal will also provide Vodafone engineers with cloud access to IBM’s quantum computing hardware.

Vodafone is working with IBM on quantum cryptography. (Photo by ArliftAtoz2205/Shutterstock)

Today’s quantum computers are not able to crack cryptographic keys as they don’t have enough processing power to work through the complex mathematical problems used to secure data. However, most experts predict it will happen within the next decade or two.

It all comes down to multiplication. Today’s standards use problems that are easy for a computer to verify but difficult to solve. A classical computer struggles with factors of large numbers but can easily check two prime numbers multiply together to some large numbers. Modern encryption makes use of very large numbers as codes in a way their prime factors form the key but this isn’t going to be a complex problem for fault-tolerant quantum computers.

Some experts say a quantum computer with millions of qubits, or quantum bits, will be required before it can become fault-tolerant enough to crack these complex problems. Researchers from the University of Sussex predict it will take more than 317 million qubits to crack 256-bit elliptic curve encryption with a quantum computer in an hour, and a 13 million qubit machine to crack it in a day.

IBM announced today that its 433-qubit Osprey quantum computer was fully operational, and revealed plans for its next generation of modular quantum supercomputing called System 2, with more than 4,000 qubits by 2025. So there is some time to go before it can crack the code.

Cryptography and beyond

The machines will get there and as replacing encryption across all devices and nodes within a network can take a long time, as can developing quantum-safe algorithms, the race is on. Governments, industry and researchers are spending billions developing new standards that are quantum-safe, also known as post-quantum cryptography.

The new partnership with Vodafone was announced during the IBM Quantum Summit, where it was also confirmed Vodafone will work with IBM to help validate and progress potential quantum use cases in telecommunications beyond just cryptography.

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Vodafone will explore quantum computing and its impact on a variety of telecom industry use cases as well as train employees on the technology through an ‘iterative prototyping’ project led by IBM. It will also go on a recruitment drive to find quantum computing experts.

“Partnering with IBM provides us with access to quantum technology which has the potential to provide incredible network optimisation,” said Luke Ibbetson, head of group R&D at Vodafone Group in a statement on the new partnership.

He explained that the innovation possible from quantum computers, such as improving network infrastructure, is the type of work classical computers will never achieve alone “allowing us to save energy, reduce costs and give customers great connectivity in more places”.

IBM and Vodafone are two of the founding members of the GSMA Post-Quantum Telco Network Taskforce, set up earlier this year to define policy, regulation and business process for telecommunication networks in a future of advanced quantum computing.

“Investing in quantum-safe cryptography, now, also gives us the peace of mind that our infrastructure and customer data will also always be secure as we explore the benefits of quantum computing,” said Ibbetson.

Quantum-safe cryptography

Applying quantum-safe cryptography will be one of the first direct applications, with the algorithms needing to be rolled out across a diverse network infrastructure. It isn’t yet clear which solutions will work best for telecom infrastructure, which is why they are starting now to be prepared.

This will include investigating protocols and standards currently being developed for the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which recently announced that four algorithms capable of protecting today’s data and systems from future quantum computing’s potential decryption capabilities, have been chosen for standardisation by 2024.

An IBM spokesperson said during a press conference that it had started researching post-quantum solutions in 2016, including incorporating quantum-safe cryptography into its own mainframe.

Its engineers are now taking what they have learnt from incorporating it into IBM systems to other companies and organisations, including this new deal with Vodafone. “We've partnered with Vodafone to investigate how this matters to the telco industry, as well as working with how we're going to bring this in more generally to the world.”

“Vodafone, as a leading mover in telco, is setting the example for their industry by exploring quantum computing applications for their business operations, as well as applying quantum-safe cryptography protocols to protect their long-term data and systems,” said Scott Crowder, vice president, IBM Quantum Adoption and Business Development in a statement.

“We’re excited to partner with Vodafone to help them simultaneously adopt quantum technology, and move to quantum-safe technology as they serve an entire ecosystem of operators, vendors, regulators, and open-source community.”

A large part of this work will filter to the wider telco ecosystem through the GSMA Post-Quantum Telco Network Taskforce. This will include identifying dependencies and creating a roadmap to implement quantum-safe networking and mitigate the risks quantum computers will face. When the taskforce was announced in September, a spokesperson said: "Without quantum-safe controls in place, sensitive information such as confidential business information and consumer data could be at risk from attackers who harvest present-day data for later decryption."

The World Economic Forum recently estimated that more than 20 billion digital devices will need to be either upgraded or replaced in the next 10-20 years to use the new forms of quantum-safe encrypted communication which could take a decade or more to implement, especially in networks with older equipment.

Read more: Can post-quantum encryption save the internet?

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