Technology is advancing faster each and every day. For years now, iPhone cameras haven’t been getting that much better; instead, it’s the AI-assisted processing that makes the phone take some of the best pictures on the market. Content algorithms have become very sophisticated and incredibly accurate at recommending content for consumers. Advances happen all around us all of the time, and while impressive, they aren’t always paradigm shifts. However, there is one shift on the horizon: quantum computing.
Anyone keeping up with big advancements in tech in the last decade has likely heard the term “quantum computing” uttered at least a handful of times. Advancements should come with caution, and when it comes to quantum computing, the main point of concern comes with cyber security. For most people, these are processes that happen behind the scenes, but it can still be important to know: what is encryption, what is quantum computing, and how can quantum encryption help with security concerns?
Privacy is something that everybody needs to some extent. Whether it be your bank information or just a sensitive message, the act of “scrambling” a message so that only certain people will be able to understand it is called encryption, and it’s thousands of years old. One of the earliest known methods of encryption is the shift cipher, which consists of shifting the letter of a message over a certain number of spaces in the alphabet.
For example, if Bob wants to send Alice the secret message “Good morning,” Bob and Alice can agree on a shift of 5 spaces. Going down the alphabet, “G” moves to “L,” “o” moves to “t,” and so on, giving us the scrambled message:
This is clearly illegible to anybody not in on the secret, but then Alice simply needs to shift each letter back five spaces in order to read the message clearly. Secret and simple!
But…not all that secure. A shift cipher is an old technique and vulnerable to simple attacks. For one, in our scrambled message, you can quickly note the repeated “t” in the middle of the first word. Since it is in the middle, you can say that this should likely be a vowel, and you can pretty quickly think of common double-vowels in the English language. With just a few minutes of thought, you can probably crack this cipher in a few tries.
Modern encryption methods are much more sophisticated, but they revolve around this same concept. You need some method to scramble the message, and another method that allows specific people to unscramble the message. One of the most common methods is called RSA encryption, and the security of this method comes from a branch of mathematics called number theory.
Essentially, and oversimplifying a bit, this encryption method depends on the difficulty of prime factorization. Any positive integer can be broken down into its prime factors, in the same way that 10 is 5 times 2, but this process is incredibly computationally difficult for very, very large prime numbers. All you need to do in order to break into somebody’s bank records by brute force is to break a large number down into its prime factors, but even our most powerful modern computers can take thousands of years to do this. That’s what makes this encryption so secure—for now.
Take a look at this article for a more in-depth explanation, but the main thing to understand about quantum computing is that it’s fast. Quantum computing leverages certain properties of quantum mechanics in order to give the fundamental elements of computing more power. Modern computing is built on bits, small data structures that can read either 0 or 1. Quantum computing is built a quantum bits, or qubits, which are similar data structures that can read a linear combination of these two states—practically infinitely more capacity for information.
Because of this, quantum computing is much faster than traditional modern computing. Problems that can take modern computers hundreds or thousands of years to solve can be solved by a quantum computer in a matter of minutes. Impressive, right? The scary part for a lot of people comes with the realization: RSA encryption is one of those problems that take modern computers thousands of years to solve. In fact, practically any kind of encryption we use today is no match for a quantum computer. So, what do we do?
Fortunately, researchers and other experts are way ahead of the problem. Quantum computers already exist, but not any that are ready to take down bank security just yet. When quantum computers become sophisticated enough, however, there will be a defense waiting for them: quantum encryption.
The core idea is always the same: scramble a message in a way that only specific people can unscramble it. Quantum computers will make short work of any modern encryption method, though, so how do you hide a message from a quantum computer? Well, with quantum mechanics, of course.
The fundamental concept that makes quantum encryption work is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, or the fact that observing quantum phenomena changes them. Essentially, messages are sent via photon particles, and this message can be decrypted by knowing the spin of the particles sent. However, if somebody tries to intercept the message, observing the particles changes them. This cues the sender and receiver into knowing that the message is compromised, and prompts them to abandon the message and keys, rendering the message illegible for anybody else.
This model around the uncertainty principle makes this encryption not just significantly stronger than RSA—it makes it theoretically impossible to break. There are limitations, of course, just as there are limitations with current quantum computers. Sending photons isn’t exactly like sending a text message, and it will be a few years before long-range quantum encryption is feasible, but this and other methods promise cyber security in a world where current security methods have become obsolete.
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