Emerging Entrepreneurs

How quantum physics keeps ‘moving’ data safe

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on February 18, 2019

Anil Prabhakar, Co-founder and Director - Technology, QuNu Labs   -  N Ramakrishnan

QuNu technology allows secure transmission of data in networks using an encryption key

Do you know, says Anil, that Germany lost World War II because of lack of security of its data in transit. We are sitting in his room in the Department of Electrical Engineering inside the verdant IIT-Madras campus and with that poser, Anil sets the stage for what QuNu Labs does.

“We have a lot of emphasis these days on securing data. A lot of data is actually at rest. In the sense, you use a password, it will encrypt your data. But what people don’t pay enough attention to is how data travel between servers. It is travelling on optical fibres. It turns out these optical fibres are easy to tap. The question then becomes how do you protect the data in transit,” he says.

He points out that it was because someone broke into into Germany’s Enigma and eavesdropped into data in transit that Germany lost World War II. Someone was transferring data and someone was eavesdropping. In today’s world, he says, this happens on fibre. You can just tap into a fibre and get all the data. That data have to be encrypted. To encrypt, he adds, you will need what is called a key. “I encrypt it with a key and you decrypt it with a key. The question is how do you generate that key.”

This is what QuNu Labs, with its offices in Bengaluru, is doing. It is working on Quantum Key Distributor, a technology that allows secure transmission of data in networks using an encryption key and the receiver uses a key to decrypt the data. This technology allows secure transmission of data even in quantum computers, according to Anil.

What QuNu does, says Anil, is generate that key using the quantum properties of light, which have been proven to be secure even on quantum computers. The idea with quantum key distribution, since it uses the properties of quantum mechanics to generate that key, is it cannot be broken easily even on a quantum computer, he adds. They offer an added level of security that classical keys do not allow. “There is a niche space that we are operating in, that says we are in a position to offer you encryption solutions for data in transit that use the properties of quantum mechanics and in doing so, we offer a level of security that is not offered by current day systems,” says Anil. There are a few companies around the world doing this, but none in India, he adds.

In Cisco LaunchPad

QuNu Labs has done field trials of its quantum key distributor. It was one of the eight companies that got selected in the fourth cohort of the Cisco LaunchPad programme. QuNu Labs gave a demonstration in December to Cisco and showed how secret keys can be used to encrypt data on its network. The company has given similar demonstrations in other places too. The technology itself, says Anil, is not difficult.

He describes it as “precision engineering with an undying faith in physics.” The physics part is well known, but getting it right requires a certain level of precision engineering. “You have to get the timing right. You have to get the signal to noise ratio right. There is a lot of technical detail that goes in. It has taken us about a year-and-a-half to get all this done,” says Anil. He feels that with each iteration that the product undergoes, they are improving.

 

What quantum key distribution does is, it does not offer a guarantee that every photon that is transmitted will reach (its intended destination). What it guarantees is that every photon that has reached is secure. He explains it in simple terms: think of it as a tennis ball and I write the number one on it and I throw it to you. If it reaches you, you have it, nobody else has it. That number I wrote on the tennis ball belongs to you.

Beta products to hit stores

According to Anil, QuNu’s beta products should be out in April-May and he expects that by the first quarter of the next financial year, there will be reasonable traction for the company. Its products, a hardware with embedded software, will reside in the data servers of its customers. The company will either offer a branded product or a while label one, depending on what the customers want. Typical customers for the products will include defence establishments, banks, data centres and telecom companies, and anybody else who has a lot of data to transmit. QuNu is in talks with some established public sector units to get these products manufactured.

QuNu Labs has a team of 20 people, including about 10 engineers, and will look to expand the team once it starts selling the product. It will work on other aspects also, like technology for transmitting data in free space. The company will look to raise funds as it grows the business.

Published on February 18, 2019

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