Quantum computing: A threat to encryption?
The race is on to protect data from the super-powerful machines of the future: quantum computers, said Cade Metz and Raymond Zhong in The New York Times. And China is bounding ahead. The largest technology companies are still working to actually build the first quantum computer; in the meantime, they’re also focusing on “encryption that relies on the same concepts from the world of physics.” Why? Quantum computers use the properties of subatomic-level particles to perform calculations at speeds many orders of magnitude faster than today’s machines. That raw computing power “could break the encryption that protects digital information, putting at risk everything from the billions of dollars spent on e-commerce to national secrets stored in government databases.” Enter quantum encryption. This, too, uses quantum properties, but to protect data, by making it evident if a message has been intercepted. If done properly, “the technique could be unbreakable.” China has invested “tens of millions of dollars building networks that can transmit data using quantum encryption.” Staying ahead on this has to be a national priority, said John Prisco in TheHill.com. This could turn out to be “as important as previous national contests such as the arms or space race.”
That concern is overblown, said Mikhail Dyakonov in IEEE Spectrum, because there are currently no functioning quantum computers—and there may never be any. “People have been working on quantum computing for decades without any practical result to show for it.” Researchers have been saying that quantum computers are “20 years away” for 20 years now. Decades spent conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics have led me to a very pessimistic view: The gap between the hype and the “gargantuan technical challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work” won’t be bridged anytime soon. So the industry’s fears about quantum computers and encryption are just a “self-perpetuating arms race,” with Big Tech “seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind.”
Few experts share that pessimism about quantum computing, said Martin Giles in the MIT Technology Review, and our nation needs to be prepared. A new report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine “says we need to speed up preparations for the time when super-powerful quantum computers can crack conventional cryptographic defenses.” The biggest challenge will be developing quantum-proof standards and then getting industries to upgrade their hardware and software to meet them. If hackers get their hands on quantum-computing technology before there’s widespread quantum encryption, “the result could be a security and privacy nightmare.”