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Next-Gen Internet May Call for a New Field: 'Quantum Law'

Albany Law professor Rob Heverly says scholars, industry leaders and government regulators need to start pondering quantum Internet regulations, and discussions should be informed by lessons of the past.

The IBM Q System One quantum computer at the 2020 Consumer Electronic Show.
As researchers study the use of quantum mechanics to develop quantum computers that will make computations much faster than today's devices, some in academia are thinking ahead to how society will approach regulations for a future quantum Internet.

According to Albany Law School professor Rob Heverly, recently named a fellow at the National Science Foundation’s Center for Quantum Networks (CQN), legislators and others will need a firmer grasp on past technology regulation debates to make informed decisions when quantum computers become commonplace. While it remains difficult to confidently predict how and when quantum technology advancements will take shape in the coming years, or the legal and cybersecurity concerns that may come with the advent of quantum networks, Heverly said, policymakers can expect talks to sound like those when the Internet emerged in the 1990s.

Heverly (Photo from Albany Law School)
“We don’t know yet," he said. "We’re in a very early developmental stage for quantum Internet, where we know it’s really cool and has potential real-world applications, but we don’t know what people are going to make of it."

Heverly also recalled debates over export regulations of RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) encryption technology and cryptographic devices, which were severely restricted by U.S. law until 1992, and less severely up to 2000 after restrictions were gradually eased.

“I would expect to see certain measures taken to keep (quantum) technologies from others,” he said, referring to potential cyber criminals or nefarious state actors.

With the advent of quantum key distribution allowing computers to communicate securely over distance via the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, Heverly said tech developers might consider hardware solutions similar to Clipper chips, which were encryption devices developed by the NSA for telecommunications companies in the 1990s. Clipper chips came with a "back door" that would allow law enforcement to intercept and decode voice and data transmissions.

“The only way that the government and law enforcement agencies could get it would be by showing they had reason to get it with a warrant ... If the keys were ever to be leaked, that would be hugely problematic," Heverly said, noting that the Clipper chip had, in fact, been hacked before its implementation. "If you build in a back door, somebody’s going to find a way to use your back door — especially if you announce it to everybody in the world that you’re doing that."

To get a jump on legal discussions about quantum computers, Heverly predicted an interdisciplinary field of “quantum law” will emerge alongside the technology, drawing much of its wisdom from past lessons in tech history. He said he and his colleagues in the CQN act as trailblazers for the emerging discipline, which aims to help build understanding of the technology among law students and lawmakers, as well as its potential social implications.

It remains to be seen what types of law school courses might comprise quantum law, but the idea is that students — and especially those responsible for future regulations — will need to remain informed in order to safely navigate changes happening in quantum technology.

“The biggest people who seem to get involved in trying to create rules for tech tend to mainly be law enforcement and national-security types,” he said. “Expertise needs to get to the people who are responsible [for regulations].”

Heverly said the field will look to build communities of scholars, industry leaders and government regulators, with the hopes of encouraging them to talk about these issues in a way that makes sense.

“We’re starting to develop the material we would need, such as the background, sources and thinking through what the issues might be,” he said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.