A ‘Quantum Apocalypse’ could tear open everything from internet banking to government secrets — and experts warn it’s just years away.
This fear was thrown into focus earlier this year when an academic paper by Chinese researchers suggested that a quantum computer (a new technology under development by Google and IBM, among others) could break the encryption which keeps us safe online.
Tim Callan, a chief experience officer at cybersecurity company Sectigo, warned DailyMail.com that quantum computers — which already exist, albeit in an relatively primitive state — could one day ‘make the encryption we use today no longer fit for purpose’.
The warning comes soon after researchers at the University of Chicago revealed they were working on an unhackable quantum internet.
Chinese researchers warn that quantum computing will reach such a point that it will be able to break encryptions that secure banking and medical details, leaving everyone vulnerable (file photo)
Currently, computers use a system called public key encryption to protect information — such as someone sending you a digital message.
In this your device — such as a mobile phone — has two keys, a public key and a private key.
The device trying to contact you uses your machine’s public key to encrypt a message, turning it into a ridiculously long number, reports Science.
This can then only be opened by your device’s private key, which unscrambles the message to reveal the original.
This is virtually unhackable for traditional computers, which would take about 300 trillion years to crack the code, Callan says, as they try all possibilities.
But experts fear quantum devices will be able to make short work of the encryption — which has been around since the 1970s — owing to their design.
While traditional machines use electronic or optical pulses that represent either a zero or a one, quantum machines use a photon — a particle of light — that can be set to 0, one, or both one and zero.
The flexibility of the new machines enables a quantum computer to code all possible solutions to an encryption, which will then cancel each other out to reveal the right combination.
Callan warned: ‘The evolution of quantum computers creates a significant threat to data security.
‘Their immense processing power is capable of breaking encryption at great speed, leaving important data vulnerable, everything from bank account details to medical records to state secrets.
‘This scenario is so alarming that specialists refer to it as the “Quantum Apocalypse”.’
He added: Quantum computers will be millions of times faster than ‘classical computers’, thanks to the fact they use ‘qubits’ which can be one, zero or both at the same time.
Callan warns that in this scenario — also referred to by cybersecurity experts as Q-Day — the world’s secrets would become vulnerable to anyone with a sufficiently powerful quantum computer.
Concerns have already been raised about this in government circles, with the Biden administration announcing plans to update its security to protect against a quantum attack last year.
The memo envisaged the new approach coming in by 2024, however, as the computers remain a few years away.
Quantum computers are still in their infancy, but those already developed include IBM’s Osprey computer, unveiled in 2021, which has 400 qubits — and is already immensely powerful.
IBM claims that representing the machine’s state would require more classical bits (ones and zeroes) than there are atoms in the universe.
But Chinese researchers suggest that even a relatively small quantum computer — with 378 qubits — could break strong encryption.
Experts have predicted this could occur within the next eight to 20 years.
Pictured above is a quantum computer built in closet LL211A at the Univeristy of Chicago, Illinois. It is firing quantum particles to labs on the outskirts of the city to test a new system of wires
Callan says: ‘The recent claim that researchers have broken encryption invites us to wonder if the quantum apocalypse is already here.
‘However, at present this “breakthrough” remains theoretical.’
He added: ‘It appears that we would need the owner of a sufficiently powerful quantum computer, such as IBM, to answer this question by testing it in real life.’
Callan says that it remains unclear how long such a breakthrough might take.
‘The critical output of such a test would be to learn how long it would take one of these quantum computers to break our standard encryption. After all, there’s a great difference between, let’s say, six months and 10 years.’
Cybersecurity companies such as Sectigo — and others including Arqit — are designing ‘quantum safe’ encryption which would be immune to the power of quantum computers.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been working on quantum-resistant encryption algorithms since 2015, saying: ‘NSA continues to evaluate the usage of cryptography solutions to secure the transmission of data in National Security Systems.’
Callan adds: ‘While this report might not make the Quantum Apocalypse a reality for the present, it definitely deserves our attention.
‘It’s only a matter of time before quantum computers render the world’s existing cryptography useless, and organizations need to prepare now for the transition to new “post quantum” cryptographic algorithms that are on the way.’
Quantum computing is still very much in its infancy, with the system only working via wires at present.
Researchers are struggling to get information to transfer over a certain distance between quantum machines without it being corrupted.
QUANTUM COMPUTING: OPERATING ON THE BASIS OF A CIRCUIT BEING ON AND OFF AT THE SAME TIME
The key to a quantum computer is its ability to operate on the basis of a circuit not only being ‘on’ or ‘off’, but occupying a state that is both ‘on’ and ‘off’ at the same time.
While this may seem strange, it’s down to the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behaviour of the particles which make up an atom.
At this micro scale, matter acts in ways that would be impossible at the macro scale of the universe we live in.
Quantum mechanics allows these extremely small particles to exist in multiple states, known as ‘superposition’, until they are either seen or interfered with.
A scanning tunneling microscope shows a quantum bit from a phosphorus atom precisely positioned in silicon. Scientists have discovered how to make the qubits ‘talk to one another
A good analogy is that of a coin spinning in the air. It cannot be said to be either a ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ until it lands.
The heart of modern computing is binary code, which has served computers for decades.
While a classical computer has ‘bits’ made up of zeros and ones, a quantum computer has ‘qubits’ which can take on the value of zero or one, or even both simultaneously.
One of the major stumbling blocks for the development of quantum computers has been demonstrating they can beat classical computers.
Google, IBM, and Intel are among companies competing to achieve this.