Governments and businesses are taking steps to guard against quantum computers, what some people see as the next serious threat to cybersecurity.
Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and IBM believe quantum computing will become a reality in the next decade — and that could bring with it major concerns, according to CNBC on Monday.
Threats to cybersecurity are getting increased attention in the aftermath of ransomware attacks that temporarily stymied Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., and JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker. An attack on IT firm SolarWinds affected Microsoft and several U.S. government agencies.
David Williams, co-founder and chairman of Arqit, said quantum computers will be several millions of times faster than classical computers, and will be able to crack one of the most widely-used methods of cryptography.
"The legacy encryption that we all use to keep our secrets safe is called PKI [public-key infrastructure], it was invented in the 70s," Williams told CNBC.
"PKI was originally designed to secure the communications of two computers. It wasn’t designed for a hyper-connected world where there are a billion devices all over the world communicating in a complex round of interactions."
Quantum computing applies the principles of quantum physics — a body of science that seeks to describe the world at the level of atoms and subatomic particles — to computers.
Current computers use 1s and 0s to store information. A quantum computer, however, relies on quantum bits (aka qubits), which can consist of a combination of 1s and 0s simultaneously, something that's known in the field as superposition.
The qubits can be linked together through a phenomenon called entanglement.
The result of that is this: Quantum computers are far more powerful and faster than today's machines.
Kasper Rasmussen, associate professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, told CNBC that quantum computers are designed to do certain very specific operations much faster than classical computers."
"This is not a case of: 'This is a quantum computer, so it just runs whatever application you put on there much faster,'" Rasmussen said. "That’s not the idea."
Rasmussen said he doesn't expect quantum computers to have a major impact for at least another 10 years.
"If we accept the fact that quantum computers will exist in 10 years, anyone with the foresight to record important conversations now might be in a position to decrypt them when quantum computers come about," he said.
Whenever they do emerge, quantum computers could a problem for modern encryption standards, according to experts.
CNBC reported the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology is looking to update its standards on cryptography to include what’s known as post-quantum cryptography, algorithms that could be secure against an attack from a quantum computer.
"When you and I use PKI encryption, we do halves of a difficult math problem: prime factorization," Williams told CNBC. "You give me a number and I work out what are the prime numbers to work out the new number. A classic computer can't break that but a quantum computer will."
Williams believes Arqit has found the solution. Instead of relying on public-key cryptography, the company sends out symmetric encryption keys — long, random numbers — via satellites, something it calls "quantum key distribution."
Virgin Orbit, which invested in Arqit, plans to launch the satellites from Cornwall, England, by 2023.
The United Kingdom based Arqit, which is planning to go public via a merger with a blank-check company, has clients that include BT, Sumitomo Corporation, the British government, and the European Space Agency.
Some Arqit employees previously worked for Government Communications Headquarters, the U.K. intelligence agency. Williams' company had been in "stealth mode" — a temporary state of secretness — until recently.
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