Sometimes science brings immediate changes, and sometimes it has far-reaching consequences. Quantum mechanics cover a little bit of both. By no means fully understood, its practical applications in transistors and semiconductors shape contemporary technology.
Post-quantum cryptography (PQC) is one branch that has yet to reveal its magnitude. But unlike with most ground-breaking technology, people are preparing ahead, developing the first tools to withstand quantum decryption.
All modern computers rely on a binary system, having 0 and 1 as their primary states. All further values are derived from 0 and 1 combinations that also power our current encryption algorithms. One bit is the smallest unit of data that the computer stores – either one or zero, on or off.
Quantum systems differ because their basic unit of information is called a qubit. Whereas one bit can either be 1 or 0, a qubit can simultaneously be 1, 0, or any combination of the two. For example, a simple calculation with 1 bit requires four steps (00, 01, 10, and 11). In quantum computers, calculations on all combinations are performed at the same time.
The computational speed increases exponentially the more qubits the system has. Google’s Sycamore quantum processor now has 53, but the company aims to increase it to one million after enough research is done to overcome scientific obstacles.
A Quantum Threat to Modern Encryption
Quantum computing poses a direct threat to cybersecurity because it can break contemporary encryption algorithms.
Firstly, without encryption, we wouldn’t have modern cybersecurity – secure VPN, cloud storage, etc. Encryption hides confidential business data, protects day-to-day online conversations, and allows journalists to exchange vital information in privacy. Without encryption, online banking would not exist, as there would be no way to protect transaction data from criminals.
Most contemporary cybersecurity systems rely on the RSA algorithm that is based on 2048-bit numbers. Traditional computers would take hundreds of years to break an RSA-encrypted data unit. Meanwhile, MIT scientists argue that a powerful quantum computer could achieve that in less than 8 hours.
It’s worth mentioning that the machine should have millions of qubits. However, such devices will likely come into being before the beginning of the next decade.
It looks like the scientists aren’t the only ones abroad on the qubit-hype train. A few years ago, the US government declared they were preparing for cybercriminals with quantum computers. These smart criminals are gathering vast amounts of encrypted data to decrypt it once technologically possible. Even though it’s hard to identify the level of severity of such repositories, the theoretical possibility of decrypting any RSA-encrypted classified information is horrifying.
Most often, cybercriminals get their hands on cutting-edge technology first, and cybersecurity experts rush to patch it up. Luckily, this might not be the case regarding quantum technologies.
Firstly, quantum computers are extraordinarily expensive. One of the leading Canadian qubit enterprises, D-Wave, shipped its 2000 qubit computing chip for $15 million. It’s safe to assume cybercriminals aren’t prepared to pay such money to steal Instagram accounts.
However, post-quantum cryptography will likely have to be introduced in all cybersecurity software. For example, contemporary password managers use different encryption algorithms to secure their vaults. However, from a quantum perspective, even the contemporary ChaCha20 vault encryption would break within a matter of hours. Regarding operations with numbers, quantum computers are ahead by a long shot.
Cybersecurity has been a great challenge ever since the Internet’s inception. Even though the industry is preparing for the new leap, it’s a safe guess that things could worsen for some time.
Regular Internet users can find solace in that quantum hacking will cost more than possible rewards. However, nation-state cybercrime and cyberwar could face the most challenging times, dealing with many times more powerful weapons.
Moreover, just a few days ago, Chinese scientists claimed to have used quantum computing to break modern encryption algorithms. After several years, quantum cryptography experts might be among the most wanted, helping businesses and regular Internet users to protect their online privacy one more time.