Quantum computing breakthrough renews concerns of cybersecurity apocalypse

A new breakthrough in quantum computing could speed up the already ultra-powerful tech. With it, though, comes the exacerbated potential for a 'crypto-apocalypse' where existing computer security fails.

The term "cryptopocalypse" was probably first coined at the Black Hat USA information security convention in 2013.

A talk presented by four security and technology experts at the show explored cryptographic weaknesses and attempted to answer the hypothetical question: "What happens the day after RSA is broken?"

RSA is a widely used public-key cryptosystem used in digital signatures.

The answer, they determined then, was: "almost total failure of trust in the Internet," for one thing. The reason? Almost everything we do on the Internet is in some way protected by cryptography.

The speakers urged a move to stronger systems to thwart attacks against this backend security that we use for emails, banking, and a lot of other things.

Quantum computing

Fast forward a couple of years and the day that those experts spoke of may be coming sooner than anyone thought.

Recent strides in the area of massively powerful Quantum computing means that cybersecurity Armageddon—where cryptography fails through the ease of inverting keys—may be just around the corner.

And it won't be caused by backdoors or the theft of certificates and keys, as one might have thought, but it will be through the simple fact that computers will be getting ever more powerful. The number crunching behind cryptographic keys could one day become as painless to untangle as some arithmetic is on a calculator today.

'Computational speed-up'

Quantum computing, which has for the most part been only theoretical, has recently seen a development through which it might be able to complete tasks more efficiently.

Physicists from the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences have developed a "new quantum computation scheme" where tasks can be accomplished "more efficiently than a standard quantum computer," the university says on its website.

Gate change

The new technique works by altering the order of quantum gates, which are the "basic building blocks" of a quantum computer, Science Daily explains.

In classic quantum computing theory, it's hard to construct enough of the gates to perform a useful computation, the publication says.

In the usual approach to quantum computing, quantum gates are applied in a specific order, one gate before another.

However, the Austrian researchers reckon they can get the gates to "act in all possible orders at the same time," and therefore be more efficient and conceivably "pave the way for a faster quantum computer," Science Daily says.

Security implications

And it's in this "faster quantum computing" hypothesis that we should be concerned.

Quantum computing already promises to make existing cryptography easily breakable. More efficient quantum computing promises to exacerbate the problem—the race speeds up.

NSA

So, worried about quantum computing and its potential for trivializing cryptography, the National Security Agency has said it will initiate a transition to "quantum resistant algorithms in the not-too-distant future," in an updated website bulletin spotted by Dan Goodin of Ars Technica.

The NSA bulletin and Goodin's associated story is unrelated to the Austrians' gate discovery.

Optimism?

No one really knows how long it will take before a quantum computer is built, but many think it is just a matter of time.

And, consequently, old ideas that it would take to the end of time to defeat much cryptography is now looking highly unlikely.

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