Skip to Content

The US is finally getting a hacker-proof quantum network that people can use

The fiber-optic cables carrying data across the internet are vulnerable. Two US initiatives aim to fix that by creating super-secure quantum transmissions.
October 25, 2018
University of Chicago

A few years ago, Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the US National Security Agency, leaked documents that showed the ways in which intelligence agencies were spying on our data. One of the most striking revelations was that spies had tapped into fiber-optic cables to monitor the vast amounts of information flowing through them.

Snowden’s revelations have spurred efforts to tap the almost mystical properties of quantum science to make such hacking impossible. Now there are signs of progress.

A startup called Quantum Xchange says it has struck a deal giving it access to 500 miles (805 kilometers) of fiber-optic cable running along the east coast of the US to create what it claims will be the country’s first quantum key distribution (QKD) network.

Also, this week the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory announced a joint venture to create a test bed for an approach to secure data communication using quantum teleportation.

The QKD approach used by Quantum Xchange works by sending an encoded message in classical bits while the keys to decode it are sent in the form of quantum bits, or qubits. These are typically photons, which travel easily along fiber-optic cables. The beauty of this approach is that any attempt to snoop on a qubit immediately destroys its delicate quantum state, wiping out the information it carries and leaving a telltale sign of an intrusion.

The initial leg of the network, linking New York City to New Jersey, will allow banks and other businesses to ship information between offices in Manhattan and data centers and other locations outside the city.

However, sending quantum keys over long distances requires “trusted nodes,” which are similar to repeaters that boost signals in a standard data cable. Quantum Xchange says it will have 13 of these along its full network. At nodes, keys are decrypted into classical bits and then returned to a quantum state for onward transmission. In theory, a hacker could steal them while they are briefly vulnerable.

Quantum teleportation eliminates this risk by exploiting a phenomenon known as entanglement. This involves creating a pair of qubits—again, typically photons—in a single quantum state. A change in one photon immediately influences the state of the linked one, even if they are very far away from one another. In theory, data transmission based on this phenomenon is unhackable because tampering with one of the qubits destroys their quantum state . (For a more detailed description of quantum teleportation, see “Inside Europe’s quest to build an unhackable quantum internet.”)

The challenges of making this work in practice are immense, and the approach is still confined to science labs. “Sending a photon into a piece of fiber is not a big deal,” says David Awschalom, a professor at the University of Chicago, “but creating and sustaining entanglement is really challenging.” That’s especially true over long-distance cable networks.

David Awschalom
University of Chicago

Awschalom is leading the initiative involving the university and the national laboratories. The aim, he says, is to have the test bed enable a “plug-and-play” approach that will let researchers evaluate various techniques for entangling and sending out qubits.

The test bed, which will be built with several million dollars from the US Department of Energy and use a 30-mile stretch of fiber-optic cable running between the labs, will be operated by members of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which brings together 70 scientists and engineers from the three institutions.

Both Europe and China are also experimenting with quantum communications networks. Awschalom thinks it’s good to have healthy competition in the field. “Other countries have pushed forward to build [quantum] infrastructure,” he says. “Now we’ll do the same.”

Deep Dive


afghanistan coding program
afghanistan coding program

The code must go on: An Afghan coding bootcamp becomes a lifeline under Taliban rule

In Afghanistan, tech entrepreneurship was once promoted as an element of peace-building. Now, young coders wonder whether to stay or go.

broken pieces of log4j
broken pieces of log4j

The internet runs on free open-source software. Who pays to fix it?

Volunteer-run projects like Log4J keep the internet running. The result is unsustainable burnout, and a national security risk when they go wrong.

This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer

QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.

ASML machine
ASML machine

Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law

The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.