Westpac ups stake in quantum security firm QuintessenceLabs

The banking giant has taken an additional 5 percent ownership in QuintessenceLabs, with the partnership expected to expand the security products used by Westpac.

Westpac has upped its stake in quantum cybersecurity firm QuintessenceLabs (QLabs), with the bank set to receive additional services from the Canberra-based company as a result of its now 16 percent ownership.

QLabs founder and CEO Vikram Sharma told ZDNet his company will provide Westpac and its global technology partners with quantum cybersecurity, combined with advanced key management and policy management solutions, which he said is designed to reduce the risk of identity theft, customer data breaches, and bank-wide privacy concerns.

The bigger picture of what QLabs does is build random number generators using quantum techniques as well as build key management systems which generate, store, and distribute key material. It also manages the policies associated with the usage of cryptographic applications.

"Enterprises are recognising that to have the highest level of encryption, you need to have good random numbers as the basis on which your keys are generated," Sharma said.

The cybersecurity firm is currently working with Westpac on a number of projects, including leveraging the copious amounts of big data the bank has at its disposal, as well as protecting information stored in the cloud. Sharma said QLabs is strengthening the protection of highly sensitive documents the bank maintains within its perimeter.

"As the relationship deepens, we're more and more going for an enterprise-wide deployment across Westpac, but these are some of the high priority items that we're working on and either have deployed or are imminently about to go into production with," he said.

Thanks to its partnership with Westpac, QLabs has access to the bank's international partners, which Sharma said will form the basis for its 2017 plan of expanding its global presence.

To Sharma, working closely with a customer such as Westpac is greatly beneficial, giving QLabs the ability to develop products that are built in partnership with the end user, rather than sending an unwanted product straight out to the market.

"It's about working with their security team and really understanding their needs and of course with an organisation like Westpac, the kind of issues and challenges they face in cybersecurity are quite common to the broader sets of issues faced in the banking and financial services sector, so those insights are very valuable," Sharma added.

"As an emerging company, having an organisation like Westpac -- one of the top 20 banks in the world -- not just using our technology but finding the company meaningful enough and the technology valuable enough to actually take an ownership stake certainly gives a tremendous amount of credibility and a great sense of validation to what the solution is that we bring to market."

In mid-2015, Westpac took up an 11 percent stake in QLabs, with the bank keen to give its security capabilities a boost and cut the time and costs associated with encrypting confidential data.

The bank was given the opportunity then to up its stake should it consider the partnership beneficial, which has resulted in the 5 percent increase and further investment to develop "mutually beneficial" products, Sharma said.

Westpac CTO Robert Wilson has been sitting on the QLabs board since that time, and Sharma touted Wilson's experience as priceless to his company. Before joining Westpac in early 2015, Wilson was the global head of retail banking and strategic engagements in the global financial services unit at SAP, a background Sharma said has been tremendously beneficial.

Since then, Sharma said the two companies have worked closely to develop cybersecurity solutions tailored to the needs of the financial industry, improving security, ensuring compliance with internal and regulatory requirements, and cutting down the time and costs associated with encrypting sensitive data.

In addition to partnering with Westpac, QLabs has also been working with the RAAF to develop early pilots in a bid to protect sensitive information that is collected on assets or platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles -- or drones -- and other electronic surveillance platforms.

Similarly, QLabs partnered with US-based software company PKWare -- the company responsible for creating the .zip platform over a decade ago -- to provide the organisation with secure encryption.

With over half of QLabs' customers in the United States, the company has picked up customers from within the US military and government, as well as partners such as virtualisation firm VMware.

Sharma's company has also caught the attention of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called out QLabs as one of the country's best up and coming organisations at the recent SINET61 conference in Sydney last year. Turnbull said QLabs is an example of Australian innovation that the whole country should be proud of.

QLabs was formed in 2008 as a spin-off out of the physics department at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, although QLabs' product suite was developed independent of ANU.

At the time, the company 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.

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.