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Technology

Next-gen encryption race heats up after Google's quantum leap

US and China lead in state-backed research, with Japan also launching effort

Google CEO Sundar Pichai with the company's quantum machine. (Photo courtesy of Google)

TOKYO -- The race to build digital security for the quantum computing era has begun as the U.S. and China lead state-backed efforts, with Japan also joining the foray by enlisting the help of the private sector. 

The rise of quantum computers has sent a shudder through industries that rely on secure data. The lightning-fast computers can break through today's digital security technology with ease, a prospect that has prompted a global scramble for stronger encryption.

Modern encryption algorithms are largely based on complex and time-consuming math problems. But last month, Google said it had used a quantum computer to solve such a problem in a matter of minutes, or 1.5 billion times faster than a traditional supercomputer.

Thus quantum cryptography has emerged as a solution. Using the principles of quantum mechanics, parties sending encrypted information exchange "keys" encoded into particles of light. The technology is viewed as theoretically unbreakable, and third-party attackers would always leave behind a marker. 

Though sending quantum-encrypted information would be costly and take great effort, it would theoretically yield great results. Expectations for its military and national-security applications have prompted governments to throw their weight into the race.

China's efforts stand out. A state testing facility aimed at seizing the lead in quantum encryption is expected to be completed next year in Anhui Province, west of Shanghai, with a cost estimated at $10 billion. The country has already completed one of the world's largest quantum networks, linking Beijing and Shanghai, and has successfully sent quantum-encrypted messages between a satellite and Earth.

In the U.S., meanwhile, an agency under the Department of Defense agency is spearheading state research and development in quantum cryptography.

Japan's government will earmark funds to build quantum-encrypted communications systems in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2019. The first move will be to set up and test a framework for sending critical national-security information by such agencies as the Ministry of Defense and National Police Agency.

Quantum cryptography could also become a major business. Financial institutions are among the enterprises highly interested in obtaining security technology that would withstand attacks from quantum computers. The global market for quantum encryption is set to reach $506 million in 2023, or five times 2018 levels, according to Indian research company Markets and Markets.

In the U.S., many startups are beginning to offer quantum-related services. Communications providers the world over are also moving to incorporate the technology, including South Korea's SK Telecom, Germany's Deutsche Telekom and Spain's Telefonica. Japan's Toshiba aims to bring quantum cryptography to the commercial level in fiscal 2020, and businesses throughout the country are expected to start adopting the tech at on a large scale soon.

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