Apple’s dispute with the FBI has caused a resurgence of the debate about encryption in the United States, but the tech industry is working on creating a new type of computer that would turn the debate upside down. Quantum computers have long been a staple of science fiction, but recent advances have caused it to move into the realm of science fact.
These new types of computers use a completely different method of carrying out calculations – one that utilizes quantum mechanics to function. Quantum computers stand to be significantly faster than their conventional counterparts, and they are able to help tackle problems that would otherwise be impossible to solve. And the immense computing power that quantum computers possess could have a dramatic effect on encryption.
Modern encryption is, the vast majority of the time, predicated upon factoring very large numbers – a task that is both difficult and time consuming for conventional computers. For example, some experts have said it would take the FBI 10 years to crack a strong six-character password that includes both letters and numbers. The time cost forms the core of encryption – information cannot be decrypted because doing so manually could take so long that the information would be useless. But quantum computers are different and, in fact, are very good at factoring large numbers. This means that quantum computers could, in theory, break most encryption protocols fairly easily. Decryption tasks that would take tens or hundreds of years on a conventional computer could be solved in minutes or less on a quantum computer. This could be helpful for law enforcement trying to stop terrorists, but it also represents a significant problem for maintaining the security and privacy of information for individuals, companies, and governments all over the world.
However, experts are currently working to address this problem and create quantum-resistant encryption. Mark Pecen is part of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute’s effort to develop encryption that even quantum computers cannot break. He has said that the effort to create quantum-resistant encryption must begin now, because of how slowly governments adopt new regulations like this, and because many systems being designed now will have to contend with quantum-enhanced cyber attacks at some point during their life-cycles.
While the security implications of quantum computing are daunting, this technology also has the potential to substantially benefit a large number of different industries. The quantum computers that are currently available are best performing optimization problems, which can be thought of as problems where the goal is to find the “best” solution from a potentially infinite set of possible options. This is the same quality that could allow them to rapidly decrypt encrypted information, but many different fields use optimization problems for more broadly constructive ends. Robert Ewald, President of D-Wave U.S. – which makes quantum computers commercially – has said that “quantum computing could lead us to explore how materials behave, how new materials might be created, superior image recognition, more accurate financial forecasting and precise genome mapping,” just to name a few possible applications. Organizations from Google, to NASA, to Alibaba are all actively pursuing this technology as a way to solve complex problems that would bring significant benefits to society overall – much like how conventional computers have changed society since their invention.
It is important to note that quantum computing is still very much a new industry – and many of these applications are still theoretical. Ewald told The Cipher Brief that “We’re at a watershed moment – basically where traditional computing was for IBM in 1955.” The next few years are going to be critical, both to the growth of quantum computing as a field and to the ability of governments and other organizations to adapt the changes that quantum computing will bring. However, if conventional computing is any indication, quantum computing has the potential to wildly reshape our society, and the task of preparing for that begins now.
Luke Penn-Hall is the Cyber and Technology Producer at The Cipher Brief.