Detecting interference and ensuring secure operations at quantum computer labs

Despite quantum calculations being a set of probabilities, security engineers at quantum labs will not want to bet on safeguarding their facilities from electromagnetic interference. Whoever first breaks into quantum computing will not only make billions of dollars; they will also have the power to avert or incite Q-day, the day quantum computers will have the power to break encryption algorithms by performing Shor’s algorithm.

However, as Uncle Ben famously told Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Security procedures at quantum labs not only need to safeguard themselves from friendly interference; they also have the responsibility to protect themselves against the threat of commercially sensitive information being removed from the building. 

Cutting-edge RF technology can monitor the electromagnetic environment to protect sensitive equipment and ensure no transmitter is used for illegal surveillance. Unapproved signals can be located and turned off, ensuring any experiment is conducted with optimal and constant RF signal levels.

Detecting electromagnetic interference (EMI)

Qubits are both the problem and the solution. Their use of superposition to achieve a linear combination of two states allows quantum algorithms to process information exponentially faster than classical computers. However, to function, qubits must remain coherent, and as radiation can make them decoherent, non-ionizing radiation, such as RF signals, can limit a superconducting qubit’s coherence—affecting the performance of sensitive equipment.

A laboratory packed full of RF-emitting devices such as employee badge readers and cellular repeaters is a clear problem. Anything emitting electromagnetic signals in the same frequency band in which scientists perform tests with qubits can cause negative effects—even a microwave oven operating on the floor above.

The solution involves first establishing a baseline by recording RF signals in high fidelity to establish the noise floor. Then, by continuously monitoring the electromagnetic environment within the laboratory (generally the UHF band), any break in the noise floor will indicate EMI from devices emitting RF signals in the same frequency band. These signals can then be categorized, and the interfering devices can be located and eliminated.


Image 1: Example placement of RF sensors inside a quantum measurement lab

The image above shows the position of highly sensitive passive RF sensors in an example quantum measurement lab—conveniently located in ceiling tiles. As the lab is likely to be a GNSS-denied environment, the RF sensors will be linked using SyncLinc technology for accurate geolocation of interference.

RF sensors constantly scan the spectrum for devices emitting RF signals up to 40 GHz, and operators located onsite or remotely anywhere on the globe can use RFeye Site—a specialist spectrum monitoring software—to detect the location of an interfering signal using Power on Arrival. Within minutes, trained operators will be able to determine the cause of the interference, and the situation can be addressed by a physical security team.

However, despite RF sensors providing 24/7/365 spectrum monitoring, it is unlikely that a highly trained RF engineer will always be available. To fill this gap, technical and non-technical operators can use RFeye Mission Manager—an automated spectrum monitoring software—to plan, schedule, automate, and manage spectrum tasks—receiving alerts when interference is detected.

RFeye Mission Manager behaves as a virtual spectrum manager, allowing separate users to simultaneously run multiple missions from a command center, which could be located anywhere on the planet.

The software has a cloud-based architecture, so quantum labs with a global footprint can share data across different offices. Each site generally has an individual manager responsible for spectrum, and RFeye Mission Manager allows them to share data. The software can be accessed and used through a cloud computing platform that provides visualization capabilities.

Given that quantum materials are usually sent from one lab to another during the chip fabrication process, understanding how the components historically performed in a measured and recorded electromagnetic spectrum will likely lead to better practices, more scientific cohesion, and more stable conditions.

Security managers across multiple sites can use the data gathered from expert RF monitoring and automated missions to create a policy that significantly reduces measurement interference and, ultimately, saves millions of dollars by making scientific processes less prone to error.

In-building monitoring and security for quantum labs

Understandably, quantum labs are currently focusing more on science than security. However, the FBI recognizes that this field will revolutionize science, engineering, and the US economy; therefore, it has created the Quantum Information Science Counterintelligence Protection Team (QISCPT), which “unites the FBI with our intelligence and security partners to protect quantum information science and technology developed in the US and like-minded nations.”

In an article titled Protecting Quantum Science and Technology, the FBI states that labs developing quantum technologies risk having their research, trade secrets, and intellectual property stolen by hostile state actors—placing the US economy and national security at risk. The article details preventative measures that labs can use to protect their research.

However, none of these measures will be able to safeguard labs if there is a leak from within the lab. Despite being difficult to measure, corporate espionage is probably growing, and there is an increasing need for technical surveillance countermeasures, as articulated by John Slattery, SEC Emeritus Faculty, in his report Economic Espionage and the Growing Case for Corporate Counterintelligence.  

What’s more, quantum labs may even be required to have a robust in-building monitoring and security solution in place to apply for government funding. An efficient, accurate, and continuous solution will contribute to the security of the laboratory and prevent rogue agents from sealing and selling secrets.

The type of RF transmitters used for espionage in quantum laboratories are likely to be highly sophisticated, hidden inside something as innocent as a USB cable, and may lay dormant until activated. The device may also use sophisticated frequency hopping techniques or lurk close to a high-powered signal to avoid detection.

Unfortunately, modern techniques render traditional Technical Surveillance Counter Measures (TSCM) methods, such as manual bug sweeps, obsolete. With such high stakes, quantum labs need a solution offering real-time RF signal detection of illegal transmitters.

RFeye Guard is a discrete yet sophisticated in-building spectrum monitoring system that geolocates illicit signals. Highly sensitive RF sensors (the same type of sensors located inside the quantum measurement lab) can be placed in the ceiling tiles around each floor that requires spectrum monitoring. The hardware connects to real-time and autonomous software, ensuring every illicit signal is detected. The image below shows an example floor plan, demonstrating how sensors could be distributed.


Image 2: The distribution of RF sensors on one floor of a quantum computing laboratory

With sweep rates of almost 400 GHz/s and resolution down to 1 Hz, the RF sensors provide a far higher probability of intercepting illicit signals than any handheld sweeping method. By continuously scanning the spectrum, when the sensors detect an unauthorized transmission, geolocation software will calculate the precise location of the transmitter and alert the security team, which can then send a physical security detail to the location.


Quantum labs require RF spectrum monitoring for three key reasons: to ensure scientific processes are not affected by interference, to protect from the threat of corporate espionage inside the building, and to detect surveillance drones flying over the building.

Three individual needs would typically require three diverse solutions. However, CRFS' modular RF hardware and software provide security managers with a dual-purpose solution. Establishing multiple connected networks inside and outside a building allows managers to control these networks from one centralized location using advanced spectrum monitoring and automated software.

By constantly monitoring the spectrum, friendly interference and illicit transmitters can be geolocated in real-time, and security officers can be dispatched—guaranteeing the integrity of the laboratory and the accuracy of the scientific processes.

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Jaimie Brzezinski

Jaimie Brzezinski is Head of Content for CRFS. His specialty is turning highly technical ideas into engaging narratives. He has 15+ years of experience in writing technical content and building global teams of subject matter experts.

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