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Does Quantum Computing Threaten Healthcare Data Security?

While some in healthcare see quantum computing as a way to harness big data to improve healthcare, others see it as a threat to healthcare data security.

quantum computing

Source: Thinkstock

By Fred Donovan

- While some in healthcare see quantum computing as a way to harness big data to improve healthcare diagnostics and drug development, others see it as a threat to healthcare data security.

Last year, IBM launched an initiative, IBM Q, to bring quantum computing capabilities to healthcare and other industries. IBM Q will enable healthcare organizations to dive deeper into complex data patterns, which could be used to better diagnose cancer or develop advanced drugs.

However, security experts are concerned about the impact of quantum computing on encryption, which is used to secure PHI and other sensitive data. The same computing capability that enables quantum computing to harness big data for healthcare advances can also be used to “figure out” encryption algorithms and steal encrypted PHI.

One of the researchers working on encryption technology that cannot be circumvented by quantum computing is Taimur Islam.

Islam is working to improve quantum key distribution (QKD), which uses the laws of quantum physics to beef up data security.

A fundamental property of quantum mechanics is that measuring electrons or photons changes their properties. QKD takes advantage of that property to exchange encryption keys in a way that alerts parties if a security breach occurs, he explained during a recent address to Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU).

QKD uses a pair of entangled photons that share a quantum connection. This method allows the distribution of an encryption key between two remote parties while ensuring the security of the transmission cannot be compromised without alerting the parties involved.

The disadvantage of QKD is that its transmits keys at slow rates. Islam was able to adjust the time at which the photon is released, enabling the system to encode two bits of information per photon instead of one.

“[Islam’s] research has important implications for the security of private information transfer,” said Professor Robert Haring-Kaye, who was Islam’s mentor at OWU.

A research team at the Joint Quantum Institute studied the use of quantum dots as a source of entangled photons for QKD, noted Zayan Guedim in an Edgy Labs article.

Quantum dots exist in a nanometer-wide space on a semiconductor, which behaves like an artificial atom does when stimulated by photons. Electrons inside the quantum dot can change energy levels and create holes that are filled by a photon when the electron decays.

“While the electron is excited and the hole still exists it is called an exciton. When paired with another electron and hole, a biexciton is formed which decays emitting two photons,” explained Guedim.

The team was able to encode information onto the two ejected photons, which formed a relationship they called a time-bin entanglement.

“This improved entanglement is now the most reliable for transmitting quantum information through optical fibers without the risk of photon degradation over long distances,” added Guedim.

While QKD might be good news for securing PHI from the threat of quantum computing, researchers at the University of Ottawa threw some cold water on the breakthrough. They were able to clone the photons that transmit information, meaning that the clones were almost exact replicas of the original information. This enabled the team to “decrypt” the QKD-secured message.

At the same time, the analysis by the researchers shed light on how to prevent such quantum hacking.

“What we found was that when larger amounts of quantum information are encoded on a single photon, the copies will get worse and hacking even simpler to detect,” said Frédéric Bouchard, a University of Ottawa doctoral student and one of the team members.  

“We were also able to show that cloning attacks introduce specific, observable noises in a secure quantum communication channel. Ensuring photons contain the largest amount of information possible and monitoring these noises in a secure channel should help strengthen quantum computing networks against potential hacking threats,” Bouchard added.

For now, much of this is in the experimental stage. But as quantum computing becomes more widely deployed, quantum cryptography will need to keep pace. Or else we will be in for a time when even encryption won’t protect PHI and other sensitive data.

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