What’s so scary about quantum computing?

One of the unintended consequences of quantum computing — and the thing that has cyber-security experts shaking in their boots — is that it may render some of today’s toughest security mechanisms useless. Experts suggest IT leaders start mitigating risk now.

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When a journalist jokingly asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to explain quantum computing earlier this year, the self-professed “geek” took the opportunity to show off his science skills and grabbed headlines around the world.

“Normal computers work, either there’s power going through a wire or not. It’s 1 or a 0. They’re binary systems,” Trudeau explained. “What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit.”

In other words, traditional computers represent numbers as either 0s or 1s, while quantum computing relies on atomic-scale quantum bits, or qubits, that can be simultaneously 0 and 1 — a state that promises huge gains in efficiency and performance.

While still a few years away, quantum computing promises to solve problems that are computationally impossible for a standard computer to crack. Organizations in almost every industry are curious about its promise, but none as anxious to exploit the technology’s power than governments and healthcare establishments.

In a “major step” toward practical quantum networking, researchers at the University of Calgary successfully demonstrated the teleportation of a light particle’s properties between their lab and the city’s downtown area, six kilometres away, reports CBC.

A Canadian company called D-wave sells a device that it says uses quantum computing to solve a certain kind of computation — what’s known as optimization problems.

But its claims are controversial, reports Bloomberg. “In order to work, D-wave’s machine needs to be cooled to temperatures near absolute zero and kept free of electromagnetic interference. It takes up nearly half a room and has a price tag of $10 million to $15 million.”

Although a universal quantum computer doesn’t yet exist, IBM has created a five-bit quantum computer that users will be able to access through a cloud service to run algorithms and experiments, says ComputerWeekly.

Sounds promising, but not so fast. One of the unintended consequences of quantum computing — and the thing that has cybersecurity experts shaking in their boots — is that it may render some of today’s toughest security mechanisms, including public-key encryption and digital signatures, useless.

Some experts predict there’s a one in seven chance that by 2026 a quantum computer will exist that can break RSA-2048 encryption. Earlier this year, senior government officials warned a security conference that Canada is already behind in the race to create new cryptographic standards before super-fast quantum computers are built that can rip apart data protected by existing encryption methods, reports ITWorld Canada.

Though any practical threat is still in the future, organizations won’t want to waste time. Experts suggest IT leaders start mitigating risk now, by evaluating their organizational data and deciding which poses the greatest risk if the encryption is broken. They should also be researching vendors for quantum-resistant solutions so they’re ready to deploy when available.

Although quantum attacks are not yet a reality, critical decisions need to be taken now in order to effectively respond to these threats in the future, NIST mathematician Dusty Moody told ComputerWorld recently. “So if and when someone does build a large-scale quantum computer, we want to have algorithms in place that it can’t crack.”

Image: iStock

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