War Games

Defeating cyber-attacks with quantum cryptography

Feb. 14, 2013: Los Alamos National Laboratory completed the first-ever demonstration of securing control data for electric grids using quantum cryptography, with this miniature transmitter.Los Alamos National Laboratory

What will prevent a United States without electricity, like in "Walking Dead" or "Revolution"?

Uninterrupted electricity protects the nation's infrastructure and its computing and communication networks from malicious cyber attacks and accidental failures. But In today’s world of cyber-warfare -- phishing scams, logic bombs, Trojan horses, viruses and worms -- threats to the American power grid abound.

To maintain control, data must be transmitted rapidly, securely and seamlessly between control centers. And traditional cryptographic techniques struggle to meet the need for speed and security. 

Using quantum cryptography, Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a method to detect and defeat an adversary intent on intercepting or attacking power grid communications. New technologies like this system are critical to protecting critical national infrastructure, they argue.

How does it work?
In traditional cryptology, information is encoded and decoded with mathematics; in quantum cryptology, physics protects data instead, using photons to transmit a key.

In Los Alamos’ system, single photons are used to produce secure random numbers between users. Once the photon key is transmitted, then coding and encoding can take place. Because the random numbers are produced securely, they act as a cryptographic key to authenticate and encrypt the power grid data and commands.

The team has also invented a novel miniaturized quantum cryptography transmitter. Called the QKarD, it is about five times smaller than traditional devices. The Los Alamos team is seeking funding to develop an even smaller QKarD using integrated electro-photonics methods.

Recently, the lab successfully demonstrated that their system can provide rapid secure data transfers for power grids.

The test was conducted at the electric grid test bed, called Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid, where cutting-edge technology can be evaluated in a realistic customizable environment.

Funded by the Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security, this test-bed project focuses on ensuring the power grid is more secure, reliable and safe.

The Los Alamos team has submitted 23 U. S. and foreign patent applications for their inventions that will make their quantum-secured communications possible.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.