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Waterloo Quality

Exploring the private world of quantum cryptography

IQC deputy director Michele Mosca is among the researchers pushing the boundaries of quantum cryptography at Waterloo.

“This is real. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction.”

Credit card numbers. Medical history. Banking credentials. We believe — we hope — our private lives are just that. Private.

Safeguarding privacy — of individuals, businesses or governments — has motivated decades of leading cryptographic research at the University of Waterloo. Scientists at the university’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) are now making breakthroughs to develop encryption of unprecedented security.

“This is real,” says IQC deputy director Michele Mosca. “This is no longer the stuff of science fiction.” He’s referring to quantum cryptography, the science of harnessing nature’s smallest building blocks to facilitate ultra-secure communication.

To understand quantum cryptography, it helps to understand how a great deal of today’s classical cryptography works.

Simply put: math is hard.

More specifically, some math — such as the factoring of very large numbers — is so hard that even the world’s most powerful computers and best-known algorithms can’t do it. Unsolvable problems come in very handy for cryptography.

But in 1994, American mathematician Peter Shor demonstrated that a quantum computer (one that capitalizes on quantum mechanics to perform calculations) could, if built, tackle the factoring and other mathematical problems at the heart of modern cryptography.  

This was a revelation to Mosca, a Waterloo alumnus then studying classical algorithms and cryptography at Oxford. He turned his attention to quantum algorithms and became deeply interested in the field of quantum cryptography.

Mosca returned to Waterloo in 1999 to explore quantum cryptography and related topics with the university’s Centre for Applied Cryptographic Research. Within three years, Mosca had recruited the core group of scientists who would found IQC to explore the vast potential of harnessing quantum mechanics for communications and computing.

Today, IQC faculty members, postdocs, and students pursue every aspect of the quantum information revolution, from developing highly powerful computers to keeping secrets safe anywhere, any time.

“The University of Waterloo has a history of excellent cryptographic research,” says Mosca. “And IQC’s work in quantum cryptography and computing is keeping us at the forefront of the field.”

> Institute for Quantum Computing

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