QuintessenceLabs getting truly random with quantum security

Canberra-based QuintessenceLabs has taken its university research and transformed it into a quantum security firm, with its products used globally by the likes of the United States government.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Security firm QuintessenceLabs (QLabs) has taken to quantum computing to find the solution for secure communication.

John Leiseboer, CTO of QLabs, said that the bigger picture of what his organisation does is build random number generators using quantum techniques as well as build key management systems which generate, store, and distribute key material, as well as manage the policies associated with the usage of cryptographic applications.

"We use a special algorithm called one time pad which has some very powerful security properties, the most important being something called information theoretic security which basically means there are no attacks that can be mounted algorithmically or through computational power that can crack it. It is as good as the key itself," Leiseboer said.

"The one time pad is an algorithm that does not lend itself easily to practical use and there are a number of reasons for that. The first reason is that the key material has to be at least as long as the plain text information you're encrypting. So if you've got a 32GB storage device and you want to encrypt it, you need a 32GB key."

That key, Leiseboer said, has to be full entropy, true random, and cannot be generated from a deterministic generator or a pseudo random source.

"Also, you have the problem of key distribution: How do you distribute such a large key when the key is as large as the information it is protecting?"

QLabs' approach to security sparked the interest of one of Australia's big four banks in June last year, with Westpac taking an 11 percent stake in the company.

"They wanted to be a customer of ours, they liked our technology, they want to use our products, but they also felt that we had not just products but people that could assist Westpac in improving their security posture," Leiseboer said.

Westpac employs QLabs for both professional services and products, which Leiseboer said includes custom software development, product deployment advice, secure system setup, as well as the provision of QLabs' key management and random number generation products.

Leiseboer said QLabs is currently working with Westpac to develop a new commercial product that will initially be developed for use by the bank.

"We also have a deployment of our key management with some custom encryption being performed inside databases for a big data project that Westpac is putting together," he said.

"We've also got key management deployed in a number of bespoke applications that Westpac themselves are developing that need to have good quality keys that are securely distributed and managed with good quality policy controls."

With over half of QLabs' customers in the United States, Leiseboer said his company has picked up customers from within the US military and government. He also said virtualisation firm VMWare is also using QLabs' client code, embedding that in a range of virtual machine products.

QLabs was formed in 2008 as a spin-off out of the physics department at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

At the time, Leiseboer said his team was looking at commercialising some technology, research, and experimental work that came out of the physics department in the field of quantum cryptography or quantum key distribution.

"The guys in the ANU did some pretty good work in putting together the world's first end-to-end continuous variable which means laser-based quantum key distribution system," he said.

"I guess it was a seed of ideas for the founders of QLabs and we used those ideas and some of the results and experiments there to start work on a range of cybersecurity products.

"The common thread in all of the work we do is that the base foundation of our technology uses quantum effects so some of the special properties that you see exhibited when you explore energy and matter at the quantum level can only be explained by quantum theory."

While QLabs' product suite was developed independent of the university, Leiseboer believes academia is an important starting point for innovation in Australia.

"In Australian organisations, there's not so much physics and theoretical knowledge, so we do rely on universities to provide that expertise, that bit of a sparkle that kicks off an idea and allows industry to pick it up," he said.

"What came out of the ANU stuff was not product; it was a bunch of great ideas, a bunch of great physics experiments with great results that we could then take."

He said universities are not the best when it comes to productising and commercial operations. He also said that despite the innovative work of many businesses, it does not have the level of academic complexity that university-based research has.

"At a university, the primary focus is on academic progress, putting out papers, exploring the frontiers of science -- if something practical can come out of that and commercialisation can be spun up to make that a commercial success, I think that's a brilliant way of getting some of the more difficult technologies invented and productised."

In addition to its ties with ANU, QLabs has a linkage grant with the University of Newcastle and a partnership with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and its Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology (CQC2T).

The CQC2T currently houses a team of university researchers that are racing to build the world's first quantum computer in silicon.

Well on their way to achieving their goal, a team of UNSW's engineers already unlocked the key to enabling quantum computer coding in silicon, announcing in November that the team had the capability to write and manipulate a quantum version of computer code using two quantum bits (qubits) in a silicon microchip.

The breakthrough followed on from an announcement made in October when another team of engineers from the university built a quantum logic gate in silicon, which made calculations between two qubits of information possible.

Editorial standards