Continuous-variable quantum key distribution is a practical application of quantum information theory that is aimed at generation of secret cryptographic key between two remote trusted parties and that uses multi-photon quantum states as carriers of key bits. Remote parties share the secret key via a quantum channel, that presumably is under control of of an eavesdropper, and which properties must be taken into account in the security analysis.
Well-studied fiber-optical quantum channels commonly possess stable transmittance and low noise levels, while free-space channels represent a simpler, less demanding and more flexible alternative, but suffer from atmospheric effects such as turbulence that in particular causes a non-uniform transmittance distribution referred to as fading. Nonetheless free-space channels, providing an unobstructed line-of-sight, are more apt for short, mid-range and potentially long-range (using satellites) communication and will play an important role in the future development and implementation of QKD networks.
It was previously theoretically shown that coherent-state CV QKD should be in principle possible to implement over a free-space fading channel, but strong transmittance fluctuations result in the significant modulation-dependent channel excess noise. In this regime the post-selection of highly transmitting sub-channels may be needed, which can even restore the security of the protocol in the strongly turbulent channels. We now report the first proof-of-principle experimental test of coherent state CV QKD protocol using different levels Gaussian modulation over a mid-range (1.6-kilometer long) free-space atmospheric quantum channel. The transmittance of the link was characterized using intensity measurements for the reference but channel estimation using the modulated coherent states was also studied.
We consider security against Gaussian collective attacks, that were shown to be optimal against CV QKD protocols . We assumed a general entangling cloner collective attack (modeled using data obtained from the state measurement results on both trusted sides of the protocol), that allows to purify the noise added in the quantum channel . Our security analysis of coherent-state protocol also took into account the effect of imperfect channel estimation, limited post-processing efficiency and finite data ensemble size on the performance of the protocol. In this regime we observe the positive key rate even without the need of applying post-selection. We show the positive improvement of the key rate with increase of the modulation variance, still remaining low enough to tolerate the transmittance fluctuations.
The obtained results show that coherent-state CV QKD protocol that uses real free-space atmospheric channel can withstand negative influence of transmittance fluctuations, limited post-processing efficiency, imperfect channel estimation and other finite-size effects, and be successfully implemented. Our result paves the way to the full-scale implementation of the CV QKD in real free-space channels at mid-range distances.