Once quantum computers become a reliable form of technology, they’ll do quick work of computing processes that would normally take supercomputers an extremely long time to perform. With this cutting-edge tech, phenomena such as intricate chemical reactions can be predicted and set to produce new raw materials or very potent medicines. Fields that use complex mathematics, such as engineering and economics, would be propelled to produce innovation after innovation.
However, as with any tool that humankind produces, quantum computing can also be used maliciously. For instance, in theory, it can be employed to break today’s encryption technology. It’s not difficult to imagine cybercriminals obtaining encrypted data now so they can decrypt it later on when quantum computers become available. Cybersecurity measures such as virtual private networks (VPNs) may be currently making your data unintelligible to those performing man-in-the-middle attacks, but hackers only have to wait for quantum computers to make VPN encryption tech obsolete.
Why is quantum computing bad news for today’s encryption methods?
Non-quantum computers — now referred to as traditional or classical computers — rely on a binary way of looking at things. Its ones and zeroes can be understood as “on” or “off” or some other binary opposition. Because of this, a traditional computer can only consider potential answers one at a time until it finds the correct result, which is time-consuming when it comes to solving complex mathematical tasks. This is why encryption methods work as well as they do today.
For example, the decryption keys for an RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) encryption code are the prime factors of a large number. For the purposes of illustration, let’s go with 10,116,743. Can you manually solve for its prime factors? It’s very difficult to solve, but very easy to verify. (By the way, in case you’re curious, the factors are 7, 13, 107, and 1,039.)
Numbers used in RSA encryption may be much larger and are therefore more difficult to crack. Even the most powerful supercomputers will take a lot of processing power and an extremely long period of time to derive the factors. However, quantum computing is not limited to binary code. To use a metaphor, instead of just seeing the results of a coin toss (which could only be heads or tails), it can also see the coin while it is flipping in mid-air.
Without going into too technical an explanation, quantum computing is able to consider many possible answers at once, which makes it capable of approaching and arriving at the correct result at a much faster rate than classical computing.
This means that the time barrier afforded by traditional encryption will be rendered moot by quantum computing.
Quantum computing may also allow cybercriminals to hack into people’s emails rather easily, even when these are already encrypted. This particular use case is deeply troubling, so much so that some firms are working together to come up with an unhackable email solution to thwart the problem once it arises.
Tutanota, a provider of free encrypted email services, is working with Leibniz University of Hanover’s L3S Research Institute on PQmail — a cutting-edge research project that hopes to produce quantum secure cryptography. That is, cryptography that’s resistant to quantum computing. Researchers are focusing on email security as its first use case.
“Since emails in particular are so important for professional, confidential communication, it is crucial that we find a secure solution here as quickly as possible. More and more business emails are encrypted end to end. This confidential communication must remain confidential in the future.”
— Matthias Pfau, developer and co-founder of Tutanota
Far from being an obscure effort, the research project is actually funded by the EU. Once the researchers develop quantum secure encryption, they’ll integrate it into Tutanota’s email client and work on building a usable quantum secure email prototype that’s ready for mass use.
In theory, quantum-safe encryption will encrypt emails so that these can’t be decrypted by quantum computers.
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Since encryption is today’s leading method for securing data against unauthorized users, quantum secure encryption will most likely have more use cases beyond protecting email. In the not-too-distant future, VPNs may use it to protect all the data that go through them, while cloud service providers may implement it on the critical data they store.
In short, as we move closer to realizing the promise of quantum computing, it will pay to have ways to leverage it, as well as ways to thwart it in case it is used against us.
Information technology can grant your business the power to propel itself toward growth. Learn to tap into that power by consulting with our IT specialists at Umbrella today.