CIR Market Brief: Emerging Opportunities to Secure Fiber?

Since its earliest days optical networking, on the physical cabling level, has been touted as much less prone for hard tapping than copper cables. But today, this is much less the case. Once somebody put their tap on in a right place, the security of the optical networking is gone. More and more studies are in public on the practicalities and theory of tapping an optical wire. Passive tapping may bring a lot of good intelligence.

Simple products can even be found on public market places like AliBaba and eBay today. These include bend and split tools and procedures are available for even a small scale operatives to use. Once you cut a bit out from the cable protective cover, with a proper bending a non-intrusive device can detect the signal, and thus all the security on the physical cable level is gone. Just like that, in an instant.

Traditionally fiber optic cabling has been considered more secure, based on the time it takes to tap into the fiber. Today fiber cable is as vulnerable as old copper wiring was. And with the larger amount of data travelling across the fiber cabling, the risks and stakes are higher as well. Often optical fiber signal splitting devices are not secured, and it is easy to make data leak out from fiber optics for later analysis.   Even non-intrusive techniques are proved to be effective, just by peeping into the wire, to get the light signal duplicated without ever cutting the wire half — something similar to the old fashioned copper wire taps.

Recently routers around the world were announced to have been under heavy load. Routers and trunk lines are full of optics and hard wires. What is more, as end to end encryption is not always deployed, trunk and backend frequently run plain text. With a proper equipment, one might not only intercept the beam, but through intrusive maneuvers also inject one’s own data into the stream.

CIR believes that there are two emerging opportunities that have emerged as the result of increasingly noticeable vulnerability of fiber optics.  These are (1) Improved intrusion detection and (2) quantum encryption.

Opportunity # 1: Intrusion Detection

One opportunity that CIR sees here is in new kinds of intrusion detection gear. Once any tampering with the cable or signal can be accurately detected, much of the vulnerability becomes void. Diligent protective signal streams outside of the main core can provide decent intrusion mechanism. Once the protective signal gets broken, in a way or another, it is time to shut down that main stream before things grow too bad.

Various products have been developed to further enhance the intrusion detection. While the main impetus for developing such intrusion detection products is to protect against malicious tampering, CIR believes that the market is broader than that because intrusion can occur by accident and not just from bad actors trying to steal data. Cable level security products could, for example, potentially offer detailed information on the location of the intrusion and other management tools.

Opportunity #2: Quantum Encryption

Most encryption today is based on two parties agreeing to use particular encryption keys over an insecure channel. More specifically, the current mainstream solution is asymmetric encryption, where the secrets can be shared rather safely due to elliptic curve mathematics. However, here the effectiveness of the solution lies on the practical limits of processing, time and effort.

The next generation of encryption is more secure and is also – as it happens – based on a fiber optics framework.  More specifically, it uses the somewhat mysterious phenomena of entanglement which enables two objects separated by perhaps millions of miles to replicate each other’s characteristics without any detectable communication between them.

This appears to be the ultimate way to encrypt a network.  Literally nothing happens between the two ends of the link so there is little to worry about in terms of someone else picking up as well. Quantum encryption could be used for bulk data or for key exchange and for now the real world users of quantum encryption have been government, aerospace and big financial institutions.

Quantum encryption isn’t close to be affordable for most businesses – even large businesses at the present time.  However, CIR believes that an opportunity exists to develop it into a more affordable and available solution.  However, it will take several years for such an opportunity to evolve.

Bottom Line:  A Defense against Fiber Tapping

Fiber tapping on the physical level remains more challenging task than tapping copper and this presumably will always be the case.  Still the ubiquity of fiber has led to fiber tapping becoming a commonplace, which in turn has led to a growing opportunity for optical intrusion gear.  This opportunity appears to be an immediate one.

That said, a multi-layer encryption strategy always seems to be a good idea, although higher layer encryption is always vulnerable to some degree.  In the future, the optically based quantum encryption may help to eliminate this vulnerability.

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