The ‘quantum apocalypse’ could shred everything from online banking to government secrets — and experts warn it’s only years away.
That fear was highlighted earlier this year when an academic paper by Chinese researchers suggested that a quantum computer (a new technology under development by Google and IBM, among others) could break the encryption that keeps us safe online.
Tim Callan, chief expertise officer at cybersecurity firm Sectigo, warned DailyMail.com that quantum computers — already in existence, albeit in a relatively pristine state — could render the encryption we use today no longer fit for purpose.
The warning comes shortly after researchers at the University of Chicago revealed that they are working on an impenetrable quantum internet.
Chinese researchers warn that quantum computing will reach a point where it will be able to crack the encryption that secures banking and medical details, leaving everyone vulnerable (file photo)
Currently, computers use a system called public key cryptography to protect information – such as if someone sends you a digital message.
In this device – like a mobile phone – it has two keys, a public key and a private key.
The device trying to contact you uses your device’s public key to encrypt a message, turning it into a ridiculously long number, Science reports.
This can then only be opened with your device’s private key, which decrypts the message to reveal the origin.
That’s nearly unhackable for conventional computers, which would take about 300 trillion years to crack the code, Callan says, because it tries all possibilities.
But experts fear that quantum devices will be able to cut down on encryption work — which have been around since the 1970s — because of their design.
Whereas conventional machines use electronic or optical pulses that represent either a zero or a one, quantum machines use a photon — a particle of light — that can be tuned to 0, one, or both one and zero.
The flexibility of the new machines allows a quantum computer to encode all possible solutions to the cipher, which will then cancel each other out to reveal the correct combination.
“The development of quantum computers creates a huge threat to data security,” Callan warned.
Their sheer processing power is capable of breaking encryption very quickly, leaving critical data vulnerable, everything from bank account details to medical records to state secrets.
This scenario is so alarming that specialists refer to it as the “quantum apocalypse.”
He added: Quantum computers will be millions of times faster than “classical computers”, thanks to the fact that they use “qubits” which can be one, zero or both at the same time.
Callan warns that in this scenario — also referred to by cybersecurity experts as Q-Day — the world’s secrets will become vulnerable to anyone with a sufficiently powerful quantum computer.
Concerns about this have already been raised in government circles, as the Biden administration announced plans to update its security to protect against a quantum attack last year.
The memo said the new approach would come by 2024, with computers still a few years away.
Quantum computers are still in their infancy, but those already in development include IBM’s Osprey computer, unveiled in 2021, which has 400 qubits – and is already quite powerful.
IBM claims that it takes more classical bits (ones and zeros) to represent the state of a machine than there are atoms in the universe.
But the Chinese researchers suggest that even a relatively small quantum computer — with 378 qubits — can break strong encryption.
Experts predicted that this could happen within the next eight to twenty years.
Pictured above is a quantum computer built into an LL211A cabinet at the University of Chicago, Illinois. It launches quantum particles into labs on the outskirts of town to test a new system of wires
“The recent claim that researchers have broken the encryption invites us to question whether the quantum apocalypse really exists,” says Callan.
However, for the time being this ‘breakthrough’ is still theoretical.
He added, “It seems that we would need the owner of a sufficiently powerful quantum computer, such as IBM, to answer this question by testing it in real life.”
It’s still not clear how long this breakthrough might take, says Callan.
A critical output of such a test would be how long it would take a quantum computer to break our standard encryption. After all, there is a huge difference between, let’s say, six months and 10 years.
Cybersecurity companies like Sectigo – and others including Arqit – are designing “quantum secure” cryptography that would be immune to the power of quantum computers.
The NSA has been working on quantum-resistant encryption algorithms since 2015, saying, “The NSA continues to evaluate the use of encryption solutions to secure data transmission in national security systems.”
Adds Callan, “While this report may not make the quantum apocalypse a reality today, it certainly deserves our attention.”
It’s only a matter of time before quantum computers render the world’s current encryption useless, and organizations need to prepare now to move on to new “post-quantum” encryption algorithms that are on the way.
Quantum computing is still in its infancy, with the system only working over wires at present.
Researchers struggle to get the information to be transmitted over a certain distance between quantum machines without it being damaged.
Quantum Computing: Operation based on turning a circuit on and off at the same time
The key to a quantum computer is its ability to operate on the basis that the circuit is not only “on” or “off”, but that it occupies an “on” and “off” state simultaneously.
While this may sound strange, it is due to the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behavior of the particles that make up an atom.
On this small scale, matter acts in ways that would be impossible on the macro scale of the universe in which we live.
Quantum mechanics allows these very small particles to exist in multiple states, known as “superpositions,” until they are seen or interfered with.
A scanning tunneling microscope shows a quantum fragment of a phosphorus atom precisely positioned in silicon. Scientists have figured out how to get qubits to talk to each other
A good analogy for a coin spinning in the air. They cannot be said to be “heads” or “tails” until they land.
The heart of modern computing is binary code, which has served computers for decades.
While a classical computer has “bits” made up of zeros and ones, a quantum computer has “qubits” that can take on a value of zero or one, or even both at once.
One of the major hurdles in the development of quantum computers is proving that they can beat classical computers.
Google, IBM and Intel are among the companies competing to make this happen.