China has successfully sent an “unhackable” code from a satellite to Earth.
This is the first time scientists anywhere in the world have been able to realize quantum key distribution from a satellite to the ground. This is also the first step towards building a secure and “hack proof” communications system.
On August 16, 2016, China successfully launched a quantum satellite into space. The satellite has been named Micius, after an ancient Chinese scientist and philosopher. Weighing over 600kgs, the goal of the satellite was to communicate to Earth using quantum entanglement. It works on a principle wherein, subatomic particles become “entangled.” If one of the particles is disturbed, then the other also gets disturbed; even if they are both in different ends of the world. Therefore, any attempt to hack these entangled particles, would be, in principle, impossible.
At the time China said, “The project tests a technology that could one day offer digital communication that is hack-proof”. The mission will reportedly cost around $100 million.
In the age of technology, governments and large conglomerates have become increasingly vulnerable to being hacked. There is inherent risk while sending across large amounts of sensitive data that needs to be secure at all costs.
The achievements of the experiments conducted by the Chinese satellite have been published in Nature, which is an academic journal. The satellite was able to send quantum keys to ground stations in China between 645 km and 1,200 km away. The transmission rate was up to 20 orders of magnitude more efficient than an optical fibre, according to the team.
Pan Jianwei, the lead scientist on the experiment from the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences said that this could “meet the demand of making an absolute safe phone call or transmitting a large amount of bank data.” He added, “Satellite-based quantum key distribution can be linked to metropolitan quantum networks where fibers are sufficient and convenient to connect numerous users within a city over 100 km. We can thus envision a space-ground integrated quantum network, enabling quantum cryptography- most likely the first commercial application of quantum information- useful at a global scale.” Any eavesdropper on the quantum channel attempting to gain information of the key will inevitably introduce disturbance to the system, and can be detected by the communicating users.
It had earlier been indicated that if the first satellite was successful, then other Micius satellites will follow. The team is hoping to help set up a European-Asian network by 2020 and a global network by 2030.
Our assessment is that the success of the Chinese satellite has implications in ensuring a more secure platform for Chinese entities. It can make hacking into Chinese companies more difficult by global adversaries. This would perhaps embolden China to hack overseas companies more as there is more protection from a counter-hack. We believe that the success of the Chinese satellite is a concern for other competitors in the space sector.