When we analyze the influence of quantum computing in the future of cybersecurity, two possible scenarios arise. One is chaotic and dangerous, where quantum computers are a potential threat due to their extreme computing power, capable of breaking many of the cryptographic systems that are currently used. The cryptography is a vital part of the infrastructure in many industries and on the Internet.
In the other scenario, quantum computers are used with ethics and responsibility, taking advantage of their processing capacity to solve so far insoluble problems, in fields as dissimilar as the pharmaceutical, chemical, finance, or machine learning industries. A future where quantum communication networks are much faster and invulnerable to cyber-attacks, ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of stored and transmitted data.
After all, the technologies are neither bad nor good, and it is the man who decides how to use them.
Unfortunately, most IT specialists, scientists, and researchers believe that the first case is the most likely, and many companies and governments are preparing for a quantum era. The development of new encryption algorithms capable of resisting the computing power of quantum computers is part of planning strategies to face the new risks for cybersecurity.
At the end of 2019, the world of technology was surprised by two shocking news. China claimed to have achieved the first quantum transmission of encrypted data from cosmic space to Earth, with a mobile ground station. The compact size of the station (weighing about 80 kilograms) means that it can be taken anywhere in a vehicle, and thus receive information from anywhere and at any time.
The manufacturing cost has been significantly reduced, making it possible to begin to deploy a national network of experimental quantum communication in China. The first experiment on secure terrestrial communication using quantum cryptography was successfully carried out in 1997 in the US. The covered distance was 23 km.
On October 23, 2019, a Google’s announcement claimed to have reached quantum supremacy. Its Quantum processor was able to perform a calculation in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today’s most advanced classical computer, known as Summit, approximately 10,000 years. The computer Google created has 53 qubits.
What is quantum supremacy?
It’s the point at which a quantum computer can complete a mathematical calculation that is demonstrably beyond the reach of even the most powerful supercomputer.
What is a qubit?
A qubit is the fundamental element of quantum computing, also known as a quantum bit. The concept of the qubit is abstract. It does not have a specific physical system associated. It has a unique feature that has allowed it to be used in quantum computing:
- It looks like a classic bit since it can have two possible values 0 or 1, but a bit can be 0 or 1 only. A qubit can be 0, 1, or a quantum overlap of both. It represents both states simultaneously, a “0” and a logical “1”, two states of an atomic sub-particle.
Quantum computers use qubits, which are subatomic particles such as electrons or photons. In order to generate and control qubits, it is necessary to isolate them in a controlled quantum state. Sophisticated techniques have been developed to reach a controlled quantum state: using superconducting circuits cooled to temperatures colder than deep space, and catching the atoms in electromagnetic fields on a silicon chip, in ultra-high-vacuum chambers.
Linking together qubits, the number of states they could represent grows exponentially, making it possible to calculate millions of solutions rapidly.
However, quantum computers have a big handicap, and they are much more error-prone than classical computers because of decoherence. The decoherence happens when the interaction of qubits with their environment leads their quantum behavior to decay and eventually disappear.
An imperceptible vibration or a slight variation in temperature can disturb the quantum superposition, and cause decoherence. Technically, these disturbances are called “noise”. To solve this problem were developed smart quantum algorithms but, the ideal solution is to add more qubits.
Why create a Quantum computer?
The reasons are not only to improve the processing capacity and solve the problems that cannot be done with traditional computers. In the last 20 years, the complexity and number of transistors in a single CPU have increased exponentially. It seems that we found the limits of the transistor technology in the integrated circuit.
The extreme miniaturization of electronic doors is causing the effects of a phenomenon that become much more significant, such as Electromigration and the Sub-threshold. These obstacles are, among other factors, that make researchers study new computing methods, such as the quantum computer.
History in dates
In 1995 Peter Shor, an American scientist at AT&T Bell Laboratories, defined the algorithm that bears his name, and that allows calculating the prime factors of numbers at a much higher speed than in any traditional computer. In addition, its algorithm would allow to break many of the cryptography systems currently used.
In 2001, Shor’s algorithm was first executed on the first 7-Qbit quantum computer developed in Los Alamos by IBM and Stanford University.
In October 2015, the Microsoft Research Department stated:
¨Recent improvements in control of quantum systems make it seem feasible to finally build a quantum computer within a decade with around one hundred logical qubits¨.
In 2019, a survey of IT leaders from 400 organizations showed that 71% of the questioned, consider the emergence of quantum computers as a threat to cybersecurity. They think quantum computers will be employed to crack encryption codes within the next three years.
The threat of quantum computing
Many products, services, and businesses rely on encrypting protocols. Without the expected levels of security, they won’t be operational. They wouldn’t meet the legal requirements for data privacy and security. The integrity, confidentiality, and availability of stored data would not be guaranteed.
A quantum computer using Shor’s algorithm could break an RSA 2048-bit encryption in 10 seconds after performing 1 million operations per second. A classical computer with one trillion operations per second would need around 300 trillion years. Until now, public-key encryption has been uncrackable by using very long key pairs—like 2,048 bits. In the future, an advanced quantum computer could crack even 4,096-bit key pairs in just a few hours using the Shor’s algorithm.
It’s not probable cybercriminals will have the resources to build quantum processors. Still, some nations are developing quantum computers, that might be employed to crack encryption algorithms as part of cyber-espionage activities. That situation would affect not only the enterprises, but governments, armies, financial transactions, healthcare records, and personal data — the whole world.
The good news is that quantum computers now operating have too little processing power and are too error-prone to crack today’s secure codes. In the future, to break a code, quantum computers would need 100,000 times more processing power and an error rate 100 times better than today’s best quantum computers have achieved.
Prevention is the best weapon
A quantum computer would need the throughput of 4,000 qubits to break today’s most robust encryption key. It’s been considered that we may see this capability by 2023. Still, the researches have predicted that the power of quantum machines would expand at a “double exponential rate,” compared to the exponential rate of Moore’s Law. (the number of transistors in dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years)
Opportunely, big companies like Google and Microsoft are already developing quantum-safe encryption algorithms, the so-called Lattice-based algorithms.
A lattice-based encryption algorithm involves hiding an encryption key at the intersection point of a multi-dimensional lattice. The only way to find the key is to know your way through the lattice, and there’s no way to compute the path. Lattice-based encryption is available as a product or service from companies such as Privitar and Safecrypto.
Governmental organizations such as the NSA (The National Security Agency) and NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) are also participating in its development. NISThas been designing systems to assess the effectiveness of these new algorithms, and the results should be available by 2022. IBM has created its Spectrum Protect, which will defend physical file servers, applications, and virtual environments from quantum computers.
This year at the CES 2020, the major electronics fair in the world, the IBM company presented the first quantum computer for commercial use, the IBM Q System One, 20 ‘cubits,’ which offers its services through the cloud.The company has also expanded its Q Network, providing access to company’s specialists, developer tools, and cloud-based quantum systems through IBM Q Cloud.
The Q Network encompasses now more than 100 organizations from different areas such as electronic, banking, insurance, startups, and energy. The results are already palpable: IBM and Daimler teamed up to develop next-generation batteries with the help of quantum processors.The batteries will be more powerful and cheaper than the current generation.
The Tech-giant proclaimed another quantum-computing milestone: IBM scored a quantum volume of 32.
The quantum volume is a metric that evaluates how powerful is a quantum computer, including de number of qubits, coherence times, and connectivity. The bigger the score, the bigger is the capacity to solve complex problems.
Quantum computers are no longer a dream; whether we want it or not, in the 2020-2030s, we will already be in the quantum domain. Time will tell if it is a danger, or a contribution to the development of science.