In this article, we look at what the ‘quantum apocalypse’ is, and what businesses are doing to prepare for this threat.
What Is The Quantum Apocalypse?
The so-called ‘quantum apocalypse’ refers to the unspecified point in the future where someone (e.g., threat actors or a foreign power) has a functioning quantum computer that can break the kind of encryption that we trust to secure our data, transactions, and communications. This vision is apocalyptic because it would mean that this quantum computer could be used to shut down government defence systems, clear bank accounts, clear Bitcoin wallets, create financial chaos, and access all manner data and communications systems. In terms of national, enterprise, and personal security, this scenario (which is a real possibility) could really be apocalyptic and especially for those agencies, businesses, and organisations that have a legal responsibility to hold and store our data.
What Is A Quantum Computer?
A Quantum computer can carry out complex calculations at high speed. Whereas traditional computers store data in binary ‘bits’ (ones and zeros) and work by creating and storing long strings of these ‘bits’, quantum computing’s ‘qubits’ (quantum bits) can do both at once. This is because a qubit can hold a zero, a one, or any proportion of both zero and one at the same time, and an array of qubits can use something called ‘superposition’ to represent all 2^64 possible values at the same time. This means that information can be processed much more quickly than with a traditional computer.
Dramatically Speed Up Complex Tasks
The fact that Quantum computers can store so much more data in fewer bits, means that in addition to being able to solve extraordinarily complex problems, they can do so at high speed. Quantum computers can be used, for example, to dramatically speed up tasks that have traditionally taken a long time, such as finding new drug molecules.
The results can be astounding, where crunching numbers that would take a classical computer a week, could take a quantum computer less than a second. For more information (and examples like this), there are some interesting take-aways from IBM at: https://www.ibm.com/quantum-computing/what-is-quantum-computing/ .
The Risk And The Fear
The fear is, however, that although the rate of improvement in quantum computing has slowed in recent years, over time they are still likely to become many times faster than today’s machines. This raises the possibility that the world could be caught off guard by someone developing a quantum computer that could render most known methods of encryption useless. This risk has been taken very seriously for several years now. For example:
- In 2015 in the US, the National Security Agency (NSA) warned that progress in quantum computing was at such a point that organisations should deploy encryption algorithms that can withstand such attacks from quantum computers.
- In November 2018, security architect for Benelux at IBM, Christiane Peters, warned of the possible threat of commercially available quantum computers being used by criminals to try and crack encrypted business data.
How Are Businesses Preparing To Mitigate The Threat?
Having known about this threat for some time, many global businesses in the financial and tech sectors have been taking ‘quantum-proofing’ measures to protect themselves and their stakeholders. Examples of how businesses have been preparing include:
- Former IBM engineer, now head of the Future Lab for Applied Research and Engineering (FLARE) at JPMorgan Chase, Marco Pistoia, has been helping the financial giant to develop quantum key distribution (QKD) that works effectively over distances. This hybrid technology can boost security for financial transactions and guard against quantum hacks. JPMorgan Chase is also working with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST to provide recommendations about the algorithms to use.
- NIST is itself working to develop a standardised defence strategy that would be able to protect industry, government and academia as well as America’s critical national infrastructure.
- Google, Microsoft, Intel, and IBM are reported to be working on solutions. These companies are well-placed to develop solutions that could provide security against the known quantum threats. For example, IBM has been involved in quantum computing for some time and has opened a Quantum Computation Centre in New York bringing online (and making accessible via the cloud) the world’s largest fleet of quantum computing systems for commercial and research activity that exist outside of experimental lab environments. It also appears (from a paper briefly published to a NASA website) that Google has already achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ by making a quantum processor that can complete a task in 200 seconds, which would take a regular state-of-the-art supercomputer approximately 10,000 years to perform.
- Specialist companies like Quantinuum and Post-Quantum are already offering solutions. For example, Post-Quantum, which describes itself as “the only source of usable quantum-safe solutions” offers software products to guard against the risk and says it “began solving the post-quantum encryption challenge back in 2009”. The company also authored the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF) standards for a post quantum Virtual Private Network, which is being trialled by NATO.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Quantum computers offer so much promise in enabling governments, businesses, and organisations to solve complex problems in a mere fraction of the time that normal computers can. It is a very real risk, however, that this power, in the wrong hands could be weaponised and used to crack the encryption that the world trusts and relies upon. The race is on, therefore, to create powerful algorithms that can stand up to attacks from quantum computers. With grand names like post-quantum cryptography / quantum-proof cryptography, and quantum-safe / quantum-resistant cryptographic (usually public-key) algorithms, these are the next generation of protection for businesses everywhere. Although it seems a long way off, the evidence is that the threat is real and the development of these algorithms and other solutions yet to come are likely to play a vital role in protecting us all from the threat of the so-called ‘quantum apocalypse.’
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