The rise of quantum computing and its implications for encryption coders could make us all nostalgic for a simpler time writes Mark Mahaffey
October 24th, 2003, I remember walking down to the Millennium Bridge in the City from my current bank’s offices at the old Financial Times building in order to watch the flypast of the last flight of the Concorde.
I had been lucky enough in the previous two decades to wangle a good few flights at supersonic speed, usually to New York, on some ‘urgent’ business. At 60,000 feet cruising altitude, travelling at Mach 2, you were left in little doubt that you were bettering typical aircraft abilities by double. Age, unprofitability and the tragic crash of the Air France Concorde in 2000 are always mentioned as the reasons for its demise but, nevertheless, in the last 20 years, there has been no replacement and we have had to content ourselves with flying at less than half the speed of Concorde, a strange regression in terms of human advancement.
The speed of human invention and technological change has never been greater than in the last few years. While mankind’s footsteps have spread across the globe in increasing numbers throughout the last 5000 years of documented history, there have been long periods of several hundred years where a time-traveller would not have noticed much change. Not so, in 2018. We are now a globally connected, time- efficient species who expect constant advances in science for our business and personal lives to thrive.
As someone who is going to be the wrong side of 54, next month, I can well remember the time when the only way to communicate with someone was in person or on a landline telephone, all purchases had to be made in an actual shop and banking services were at your local branch. While I am constantly amazed how the incredible advancements made since then have not given me oodles more free time, I have no warm-feeling nostalgia about those aspects of the past. But are we at risk of a return to that time? Is it possible that, like supersonic flight, these advancements will be consigned to the past and in the future, we will not be able to enjoy the technological abilities that we have today?
Hacked to death
Today, cybersecurity is the bedrock of our modern society. Whether it’s Whatsapp messaging, online payments, medical records or government secrets, we rely on the power of digital encryption. Since the late 1970s, we have relied on encryption algorithms to protect our modern needs.
These algorithms, using mathematical ‘trapdoor’ one-way functions, rely on either integer factorisation or elliptical curves. Their security comes from the power of big numbers that make the task of trying out millions of permutations too time-consuming to be cracked by today’s computing power.
Quantum, derived from Latin, meaning ‘how great’ or ‘how much’, is typically followed by physics or mechanics but in terms of cybersecurity, the recent developments in quantum computing are becoming hard to ignore. In layman’s terms, quantum computing can process infinitely faster than the supercomputers of today. Published papers in the last six months are showing considerable progress in building quantum processors by using silicon, which can enable more and more qubits (quantum bits) to be linked in states of ‘superposition’ that are neither one state or the other, rather than the typical binary, 1 or 0, classical bit (See Schrödinger’s cat).
Pandora’s quantum box
While scientists have long dreamed of this power for new advancement in fields such as medicine and physics, it is a potential catastrophe for the digital encryption that underpins our global world today. In fact, an algorithm has already been written for a quantum computer to solve integer factorisation (i.e. N =pq , given an integer N, its prime factors would be pq), called Shor’s algorithm. Named after the mathematician Peter Shor, it was created in 1994.
Alas, the algorithm has sat, barely touched for a quarter of a century, and has only been tested for small numbers while it awaits a quantum computer big enough to run it. This is a computer process that requires incredibly cold temperatures, and where the increasing amount of qubits has to be linked without error noise to perform these calculations. Some noted researchers believe that there is a one in two chance that a quantum computer using Shor’s algorithm will be able to break the RSA algorithm in the next ten years. Imagine not just every piece of current encrypted data that is openly available to the world in time, but more importantly, every piece of data that has used these methods since 1980, every email and backed file that has been stored.
Can we really go back to the dark ages of the late 1970s, without reliable encryption for our digital needs? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Historically, all powers of encryption and coding have swung between the codebreaker and the code maker. In Simon Singh’s classic, The Code Book, he recounts this history from the Pharaohs to Vigenère’s cypher, to frequency analysis and WWII’s Enigma. Since 1976, however, the code maker has been firmly in control. Is it a time for change?
Naturally, with quantum computing, there is, of course, quantum cryptography. Here, the code makers are desperately searching for new ways to provide encryption when – and not if – this comes to pass. Last month, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, there was a conference for post-quantum cryptography where hundreds of new algorithms were entered to be tested in the hope that by the time quantum computing becomes a reality, we may have some defence. Or maybe that is impossible, who knows, but this huge concern is finally waking up the establishment and giving them sleepless nights.
Just think, no more mindless Whatsapp chats or gratuitous internet shopping fuelled by over-invasive advertising. Back to chatting to people in the Lloyd’s bank queue, waiting to have your cheque cashed. Who said there was no nostalgia?
Mark Mahaffey is the CIO of hedge fund Hinde Capital. This article was taken from the latest edition of the Hinde Sight Letter