Somewhere, right now, a hacker could be hoarding valuable data that they can’t access because it’s encrypted. It’s as if they’ve stolen a safe full of jewels and are just waiting for someone to give them the combination to unlock the safe. Experts in quantum computing warn that these bad actors will be able to crack the code in the future. While today’s computers and communication networks are based on tiny electronic devices and wires, the quantum community is taking advantage of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles to create quantum processors and quantum memory.
As quantum computing technology evolves, malicious actors could leverage its potential to decrypt stolen data if left unchecked. Here’s what the technology entails, and what its advancement could mean for individuals and organizations aiming to protect their data into the future.
Quantum Processing and Quantum Memory
Quantum technology is an emerging field that uses quantum mechanics — the physics of subatomic particles such as protons and electrons — to solve problems that are too complex for today’s devices to handle in a realistic amount of time.
The computers that are ubiquitous in homes and businesses today, called classical computers, are based on binary logic. In classical memory, the smallest unit of data, called a bit (short for binary digit), can be in one of two states, represented by a zero or a one, as TechTarget explains.
Quantum memory, on the other hand, is less black and white. The smallest unit of data, called a qubit (sounds like “cue-bit”), can be represented by a zero, a one, or a zero and a one at the same time. It’s like the difference between a light bulb with an on/off switch and a light bulb with a dimmer.
This is an emerging field without universal standards or protocols, so there are several types of qubits. Some qubits are based on superconducting materials, while others use trapped atoms or ions (charged atoms), and others use particles of light (photons).
Essential Physics Concepts That Enable Quantum Technology
While quantum technology is so complicated that it can feel esoteric, quantum mechanics is not magical — it’s natural. To truly understand how it all works, you have to combine math, engineering, physics and computer science. There are many factors involved in successful quantum technology, but for the sake of clarity, it’s most important to understand two fundamental concepts:
Superposition allows quantum objects to exist simultaneously in more than one state or location (remember, qubits can represent zero and one at the same time).
Entanglement allows two or more quantum particles to become entangled, creating a single system. “Whenever we apply an operation to one particle, it correlates to the other entangled particles as well, the online learning platform educative.io explains.
Scientists and engineers are using these principles to build quantum communication, quantum computing, and quantum sensing. Today’s technology has allowed us to do incredible things that early computer scientists couldn’t have even imagined. For instance, we can map and sequence all of the genes of the human genome, work remotely, and participate in real-time video calls with people from across the globe. However, despite all of this progress, there is a physical limit to the amount of tiny transistors we can squeeze onto a silicon chip, and some problems have too many variables for classical computers to handle. Quantum technology could solve these problems in minutes, where classical computers would take millennia, according to MIT. But there is a catch: This new way of solving problems is so good that data security is at risk.
Cybersecurity in the Quantum Age
Much of today’s data security is based on the mathematical concept of factors — numbers that divide evenly into other numbers. IBM, one of several companies pioneering quantum technology, explains that modern encryption methods often use very large numbers as codes. Until now, this approach has worked well because classical computers can’t easily figure out the factors of large numbers, but quantum computers theoretically could solve these problems in a short amount of time.
As early as 1994, scientists demonstrated that quantum computers could break mainstream encryption technology, CNET notes. The United States government started overseeing the design and testing of post-quantum cryptography technology in 2016, and in 2022 the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced four protocol standards for quantum-safe cybersecurity.
While today’s hackers might be collecting encrypted data and holding onto it until quantum computers can unlock it, quantum technology still faces several challenges. Qubits hold great potential, but they are finicky and prone to noise and decoherence. The quantum community is working to correct the inevitable errors, and MIT points out that the technology “appears to be reaching an inflection point, shifting from solely a scientific problem to a joint science and engineering one.”
As quantum technology starts to become commercialized in the next few years (or perhaps decades, depending on who you ask), cybersecurity will be an important focus area. Several companies are developing post-quantum encryption, and researchers are continually discovering new ways to keep data safe in the future. As with the early days of the internet, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we may soon find out.
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