Vulnerabilities in the national grids and the potential for wide-scale outages has rasied concerns over the past few years as high-profile companies have gone public with highly sophisticated hacking attempts. MIT‘s Technology Review reported on GridCOM Technologies, a startup which recently secured seed funding from Ellis Energy Investment which says quantum cryptography can make the electricity grid control systems secure.
Dr. Duncan Earl the chief technology officer of GridCOM Technologies told TR he plans to use the start-up money to build a prototype quantum encryption system designed specifically for the electricity grid. The company’s hope is to demonstrate a working system working next year near its home base in San Diego. Utilities would pay about $50 a month for access to a software service and hardware that encrypt critical communications in an area.
With GridCOM Technologies, Dr. Earl is trying to make critical infrastructure more secure by encrypting data send to grid control systems. The article explains that traditional encryption techniques can’t work at the low latency speeds—measured in milliseconds–required for SCADA systems, which leaves them vulnerable to attack. CTO Earl is an expert in optical technologies who worked for the Cyberspace Sciences and Information Intelligence Research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and helped spin out an optical lighting company in 2006.
GridCOM Technology’s system works by generating two photons using a laser and storing them in optical fiber cables. These twin photons each have an opposition polarization—either a wave oscillating up and down or left and right, Dr. Duncan explained to the author, Martin LaMonica. According to quantum mechanics, if one tries to measure these photons, it will change the state of the other and the photons are no longer “entangled.” This phenomenon allows a communications system to detect if a message has been intercepted.
According to the article, the firm’s service would create an encryption key based on the arrangement of the photon pair. A hardware receiver posts that information on the Internet and the company’s hosted software will poll those devices. A subscriber to the service will be able validate that communications haven’t been tampered and encrypt messages, Mr. Duncan says. “You’ve got physics that is ultimately securing the device, not mathematics. Mathematical complexity has been a great tool for encryption but it’s not future proof,” he told TR.
GridCOM’s Duncan says a key advantage of the system, is that it works quickly, a necessity for SCADA systems. “You’ve eliminated the possibility of somebody eavesdropping to hack the key. There’s no data latency and you’ve leveraged a random bit stream … That’s really all the grid needs.”
One of the main limitations is that the cryptography is only point-to-point over a fiber cable and can’t work across switching equipment over the Internet. In GridCOM Technology’s case, the system is limited to 20 kilometers in distance. GridCOM’s CTO envisions that utilities will put a series of hardware receivers in secured buildings to encrypt communications for a whole region.There are already a number of efforts to build commercial quantum encryption systems GigaOm reported on the success that the scientists at Los Alamos have had running a quantum network for over two years and ID Quantique in Switzerland.
TR concludes that quantum encryption offers one promising route to securing the grid, but it shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet. If it works, it would address one very specific application but securing something as complex as the power grid requires a full suite of options and above all good security practices.
Smart Grid Today provides (PDF) some background. Quantum physics was first described in a 1935 paper that included Albert Einstein as an author. Erwin Schrödinger coined the quantum term “entanglement” and that was the basis for his famous thought experiment of a cat that exists simultaneously in a state of being alive and dead.