If, like me, you follow the cyber security industry with fairly keen interest, you will likely have come across the mention of quantum computers a few times over the past few months. There’s a good reason that these enormous and very complicated devices are hitting the headlines – they present a pretty big problem for the world of cyber security.
Quantum computing. That’s the problem.
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘computing’ – quantum computers are nothing like the computer you’ve got at home. These are enormous, complex machines with capabilities it’s almost impossible to get your head around.
What are quantum computers and how do they work?
An ordinary computer works using ‘bits’. These are like switches that can either be in the ‘on’ position (which is represented by a number 1) or in the off position (which is represented by a number 0). Everything you see on your computer is made up of a string of bits which, if you looked deep into your computer’s soul, would just look like a ton of 0’s and 1’s.
Meanwhile, a quantum computer uses ‘qubits’. These don’t have to be just on or off. Using the very clever science behind quantum mechanics, qubits can be put into ‘superposition’. This basically means that they’re in a state of spinning constantly between on and off. So they’re not on, they’re not off, they’re kind of both and neither and in the middle all at the same time. That is until they ‘collapse’ out of superposition, at which point they fall into either the on or the off position. Think of it like spinning a coin on its edge. For as long as it has the momentum to keep spinning, it is in ‘superposition’, but once it falls it is simply heads or tails. This state of being a bit of everything at once is the secret behind the power of quantum computers. Because, while a normal computer can only work through a problem one potential solution at a time, a quantum computer can try multiple solutions simultaneously. This means it can solve the problem much, much faster.
Confusing, right? It gets better…
There is also a very strange phenomenon called ‘quantum entanglement’ which makes quantum computers even more powerful. Using some clever science that I don’t fully understand (and apparently neither do the scientists), pairs of qubits can be ‘entangled’ so that they exist in one quantum state tied together. Entangled qubits copy one another, so if you change the state of one, you’ll also change the state of the other instantly. This can even work for qubits that are quite far apart. Quantum computers use a chain of lots of entangled qubits, all of which are tied together using this process. So, when one qubit in the entanglement chain is put into superposition, the others follow suit. Because there are so many qubits in superposition in one computer, the power and speed of the quantum computer are exponentially higher than with just one qubit. The more entangled qubits, the more powerful the computer.
Put simply, in a race between normal computers (or even supercomputers) and quantum computers, quantum computers would finish before the super computers had even stepped off the starting line.
To help you gain a little perspective, Google claims that its quantum computer is 158 million times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer.
Where did quantum computers come from?
Check out the timeline below for a brief history of quantum computers, starting way back in 1979 and finishing here in 2021…
1979 – Quantum computing begins with physicist Paul Benioff proposing a quantum mechanical model of the “Turing machine” (an abstract computational model that performs computations by reading and writing to an infinite tape, first proposed by mathematician Alan Turing). Richard Feynman and Yuri Manin went on to say that, under Benioff’s description, a quantum computer had the potential to do things a classical computer is simply not capable of.
1981 – Richard Feynman gives a lecture entitled “Simulating Physics with Computers”. During the lecture, he argues that a classical computational system could not adequately represent a quantum mechanical system. His exact words are “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical!”
1985 – David Deutsch from the University of Oxford formulates a more specific description of Benioff’s quantum Turing machine.
1992 – One of the very first examples of a quantum algorithm is established. The Deutsch–Jozsa algorithm looks to be exponentially faster than any of the current computational algorithms in existence.
1994 – Peter Shor, a scientist at Bell Laboratories, develops a quantum algorithm for factoring integers. The algorithm has the potential to decrypt an encryption method used across the globe to keep data safe and secure in transit (RSA encryption).
1994 – The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) organizes the first official conference on quantum computing, sponsored by the US government.
1997 – The first recorded demonstration of quantum error correction occurs. This is the proof that scientists and mathematicians have been waiting for that some classical computers are capable of simulating a certain subclass of quantum computations.
1999 – Yasunobu Nakamura of the University of Tokyo and Jaw-Shen Tsai of Tokyo University of Science provide evidence that a superconducting circuit can be used as a qubit.
2002 – The first recorded version of the Quantum Computation Roadmap (a document still in existence today) is published.
2004 – Five photons are ‘entangled’ for the first time. The entanglement is demonstrated by a group led by Jian-Wei Pan’s at the University of Science and Technology in China.
2011 – D-Wave Systems offer the first commercially available quantum computer.
2012 – The first dedicated quantum computing software company, known as ‘1QB Information Technologies’ ( or ‘1QBit’), is founded.
2014 – For the first time, physicists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience are able to transfer information between two quantum bits separated by about 10 feet with zero percent error rate.
2018 – President Donald Trump signs The National Quantum Initiative Act. The US sets out on a 10-year plan to accelerate the development of quantum computing with enormous funding.
2019 – Google claims to have reached ‘quantum supremacy’ (a point at which a working quantum computer is able to do something that an ordinary computer can not do in any reasonable amount of time). They evidence this by performing a series of operations in 200 seconds that they claim it would take a supercomputer around 10,000 years to complete; IBM responds to the claim by suggesting it could take a supercomputer just 2.5 days, not 10,000 years. They go on to highlight techniques that a supercomputer may use to maximize computing speed. The battle to reach undeniable quantum supremacy really is on.
2021 – Google claims to have discovered how to manufacture a ‘time crystal’ within their quantum computer. Time crystals are an entirely new type of matter, one that breaks a well-known rule known as “time-translation symmetry” by being ever-changing yet consistently stable. If it measures up to scrutiny, this would be the development the world of quantum computing has been waiting for.
But why are quantum computers a threat?
As you know, quantum computers have the potential to do things even the best supercomputers can’t, in a fraction of the time. One of those things is breaching cyber security walls.
Quantum computers have the ability to decrypt almost every encryption technique currently used in the cyber security network. The potential is so great, that some organisations are stockpiling data right now in the hopes that they will be able to decrypt it once quantum computers become available to them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is about to be a privacy war.
Right now, we rely on a system called public-key infrastructure (known as PKI) to keep us and our private information safe and secure online. PKI is used across almost every webpage on the internet, regardless of the browser or URL. Moreover, it is also used by a huge number of organisations to secure their communications both internally and externally. The truth is, this technology is incredibly outdated. PKI was first developed in the ’70s. As you might expect, this technology is much less effective against the cyber criminals of 2021 than it was back when it was first developed. In order to keep us safe from cyber attacks in the future, we need to find a better solution.
Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom. There is, in fact, a solution to our quantum computing-enabled cyber security nightmare. The answers lie in this paper.
I know, you’ve done enough reading for one day. So, I am going, to sum up the paper here, starting with a part of the opening statement:
“The technology must change to survive.“
Yes, yes it must.
This rousing sentence segues quite smoothly into the solution this paper’s authors, Arqit, have on offer. Meet “quantum encryption”.
What’s quantum encryption and how does it work?
Quantum encryption, Arqit says, provides an added extra layer of “quantum safe” security to your data and communications. The exact product they have established, which is available right now, is known as ‘QuantumCloud™’.
Put simply (sort of), QuantumCloud™ allows organisations to simplify and strengthen their encryption without the need to rely on any physical infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure here gives cyber criminals looking to hack your encryption techniques and decrypt your data (which, with a quantum computer, they could do in mere seconds) much less of a target.
QuantumCloud™works by adding a digital notary service called a “quantum notary” to your existing cyber security package, making it a fairly simple quantum-safe add-on. This will form an additional step in the unlocking process that users will have to go through in order to add a new piece of data, edit an existing piece of data, or remove an existing piece of data.
The quantum notary can either be operated by the cloud, by any individual, or by a team. This means that the notary providers do not necessarily have to have control of the notary, although they can choose to. It gives the database holders the option to keep everything in-house. One less middleman is one less person to worry about when it comes to fraud and lost information, so this is a big win. Another option would be to go for what’s called a “decentralised” scheme. This involves lots of operators in different geographical locations, all of whom are in control of lots of different versions of the notary. They’re all doing the same thing, so if one of them is compromised in some way, the others will notice and fix the problem. This is very similar to the way decentralised blockchains are working to store data in the cryptocurrency world right now.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Arqit’s notary system is that it would make it impossible to achieve the kind of certification that we’ve seen achieved in recent attacks – i.e. the high-profile Kaseya hack.
How do I get my hands on quantum encryption?
Easy. QuantumCloud is available right now from the clever people at Arqit. Find out more about it, and ask them if you’re interested, here.