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Cryptography is all about finding ways of encoding information, such that it can only be

decoded by a certain person or group: the intended recipient. In some sense, much of modern
cryptography is still very similar to the cryptography used thousands of years ago. One of the
earliest known cryptographic systems is alleged to have been developed by Caesar in the
ancient Roman empire. The method of encoding information involved taking a message, and
shifting the letters forward or backward a certain number of positions in the alphabet (for
example, A becomes D, B becomes E, etc. for a shift of 3). The cipher could then be reversed
by whomever it was sent to if they knew the shift rule used. This system is probably familiar to
most people today, and is a type of cipher known as a shift cipher.
As cryptography developed over the next two thousand years, that shift cipher idea was
taken and elaborated on by various people. Leon Battista Alberti created the first polyalphabetic
substitution cipher during the 15th century A.D., in the form of the inlaid disks with an alphabet
around the edge of each disk. These disks could be used to easily switch between different shift
codes, which could be used in series (for example changing the shift rule every word). This idea
was then later expanded upon again in the 19th century, when cryptographer Vigenere created
a matrix of these shifts rules, assigning each letter of the alphabet to a different shift. Using this
table, you can take a keyword, and for every letter in your message, step through the letters of
your keyword, looking up the shift word and encoding as you go. Someone could then decode
the message only if they knew the keyword. This was then developed into a method of
encryption known as a one-time pad, where for every message you wanted to encode, you
would randomize the Vigenere table. This is the only cryptographic mathematically proven to be
unbreakable (provided whoever is trying to break it has no information other than the message
Continuing into the era of computers, the basic ideas at play in cryptography remain the
same. All cryptography can be thought of in two parts, encryption and decryption. Much of the
development of modern cryptography is done on the encryption side, which has two main parts:

the scheme and the key. The encryption scheme refers to the general way in which the
information is encoded (the algorithm used to translate it into an unreadable form), such as the
Vigenere tables. The key refers to the singular piece of information that can be plugged into the
encryption scheme to either encode or decode a message, like the keyword to a Vigenere table.
The decryption side primarily includes ways in which someone who intercepts the message
could try to break the encryption scheme used.
Keys are an important part of cryptography, and present one of the biggest challenges.
In order for two people to securely send a message to one another, they need to have agreed
upon the key used to encode and decode the message. But unless they have some known
secure way of communicating already (such as face to face), it is difficult or impossible to verify
the key was initially communicated without being intercepted (imagine if it was sent through the
internet). This is known as the key-distribution problem. Solving this problem is one of the main
ways quantum mechanics is being used to develop cryptography.
There are certain properties of quantum mechanical particles that make them especially
promising as a method for encryption. For the encryption scheme discussed below, photons are
used as a means of communication. Photons can be polarized, meaning they are essentially
oriented along some direction. To measure a photons polarization, it is passed through a
polarization filter. Upon exiting the filter, the polarization MUST be one of two angles, which are
orthogonal to each other (think an X, each diagonal represents a possible polarization), and
occur over a series of measurements on identical photons with 50% probability. This is the
quantization part of quantum mechanics. In addition, It is only possible to measure two
orthogonal values at a time (meaning X and + could not be measured simultaneously). A result
of this is that if X polarization is measured (resulting in either a / or \ polarization with 50%
probability), and then + polarization is measured (which MUST result in either | or -- polarization,
again with 50% probability), the photon will forget its initial orientation if measured along X
again. That is, measurements for X will result in / and \ with 50% probability, despite the fact that

the photon had previously been measured to be one or the other. If the photon had been
measured along X twice in a row (instead of +), the results would have been the same for both
measurements. It is as if measuring for + polarization messed with the actual polarization for X.
The second property important to quantum cryptography that comes as a result of this is
called the no-cloning theorem, which says that an unknown quantum state cannot be copied.
This makes sense given the above, in order to replicate a photon with a certain polarization, you
would have to measure along an orientation, however your result would be one of two values
with the same probability regardless of the the actual initial polarization. Without knowing how
the photon was initially polarized, you would have no way of knowing which orientation to
measure along, and in addition whatever measurement you did make would disturb the initial
polarization such that if you ever did measure along the correct orientation, the polarization
value would be long forgotten by the photon.
Quantum cryptography takes advantage of both these properties, the most common
application being in quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD tries to tackle the key distribution
problem discussed before, in which to securely communicate an encryption key must be
established between the two parties, however there is no way to know whether the initial
conversation about the key was intercepted or not. The conventional way of describing QKD is
as follows:
Suppose there are two people, Alice and Bob, who wish to share information (Alice will
send Bob a message). In order to do so they must communicate a secret key to each other,
which will then be used to encrypt the information they wish to share. To begin, Alice will
generate a collection of polarized photons, passing each through a polarization filter and noting
its value, and orientation of the filter it was passed through. Then, Alice begins to send the
photons to Bob, one at a time. Upon receiving the photons, Bob will make a measurement of the
photons polarization along some orientation, and similarly make a note of the photons
polarization value (and corresponding filter orientation). This continues over an agreed upon

number of photons. Then, both Alice and Bob publicly (unencrypted) reveal the order of the
filters each used (but NOT the specific value that was recorded). By comparing their lists, they
will be able to see which filters were the same for a certain photon, and which were different.
For photons on which a different filter orientation was used, the initial polarization will have been
forgotten. However, for photons on which Bob and Alice happened to use the same filter, Bobs
recorded value will be the same as Alices initial value. By throwing out all the values for
photons on which a different filter was used and keeping the rest, they each now have an
identical series of polarization values (which can be translated to 1s and 0s by some agreed
upon system), without ever having to reveal the actual values themselves.
If someone were to try to intercept the key as it were being transmitted (this person is
commonly referred to as Eve), without knowing the orientation along which the photons were
initially polarized, Eve would have no way of knowing whether the polarization value obtained
was meaningful or not, since the orientation may or may not have coincided with the one used
by Alice. In addition, if Eve tried to measure the polarization value, but then continue to forward
that polarization to Bob, who would then unwittingly receive it and do measurements on it, half
the time she will use the correct orientation, and half the time she will use the incorrect
orientation and change the value. Alice and Bob can ensure that their line is secure by
comparing just a small part of the key before using it to encrypt. If the key differs significantly,
they know that someone has tampered with the photons. At this point, Alice and Bob would most
likely switch over to a classical encryption scheme to transmit the actual information.
Quantum mechanics is still a long way off from being widely used, mainly due to
technological limitations (talk about tech here)