Securing our Future Privacy

By Rachel Harrington

Professor Alexander Sergienko (ECE)
Professor Alexander Sergienko (ECE)

A growing amount of confidential or private information is shared using computers or phones that aren’t always secure, despite researchers’ best efforts. Part of the reason for this, Professor Alexander Sergienko (ECE) said, is because current telecommunication security relies on complex coding schemes.

“It’s a very difficult and time-consuming task, but all of these codes could potentially be cracked using sufficient computer power,” Sergienko maintained. “Many previously secure messages have been accessed recently thanks to the development of more efficient and powerful computers.”

Sergienko and his research team at Boston University think quantum mechanics—and more specifically quantum cryptography—may be the solution. When using quantum mechanics, the security of legitimate users is protected by not allowing a rogue party to make copies or clones of passwords or messages as they travel in the telecommunication fiber or free space.

“Quantum cryptography has the potential to code messages in a way that is unbreakable and secure forever,” said Sergienko, who has studied quantum optics for more than 20 years and played an active role in searching for telecommunication security solutions.

To support Sergienko’s research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Boston University $1.3 million through the new program, “Quiness: Macroscopic Quantum Communication.” The funding is part of a larger $4 million grant that will be shared with researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and University of Rochester, who will work with BU to develop secure quantum cryptographic communication technology.

Sergienko will work closely with researchers such as Gregg Jaeger(CGS), an associate professor of natural sciences and mathematics, and University of Maryland’s James Franson, a professor of physics. Jaeger is the author of several related books including Quantum Information and Philosophy of Quantum Information and Entanglement. He also teaches quantum information and quantum theory at BU.


“Quantum cryptography has its roots in and is intertwined with the study of the foundations of quantum theory and quantum entanglement,” said Jaeger, noting that entanglement typically occurs when elementary particles interact then separate. “Entanglement is a property characteristic of the quantum world and is of tremendous interest to physicists and philosophers, as well as engineers working with quantum information.”

One of the drawbacks of quantum cryptography, sometimes known as quantum key distribution, is that it runs at a significantly slower speed than that of a regular telecommunication signal and cannot travel as far.

“The main task of the DARPA Quiness program is to develop new engineering solutions that would bridge this gap and allow quantum cryptography to run at faster speeds over longer distances,” said Sergienko.

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