It’s the year 2030; the first functional quantum computer has been released to the public and is able to break modern semiprime cryptography techniques without breaking a sweat. Every aspect of digital security that the internet has been built on over the past 50 years is rendered completely obsolete as the computational power of modern consumer computers explodes into the limitless realm of particle physics.
The cryptographic infrastructure of blockchain technology around the world crumbles, and the whole idea of secure cryptocurrencies comes to a grinding halt as hackers with early access to quantum computing capabilities raid digital wallets across the web.
Well now what? And how much of this is a realistic concern…?
…versus the trigger happy cry of the apocalyptic horn, which I think we’re all pretty sick of by now.
The answer to both questions boils down to the progress we will be able to make in cryptography between now and the arrival of stable quantum computing; assuming this happens sooner rather than later — which is, for better or for worse, very realistic — time is of the essence, and the scope of the problem is vast.
Modern cryptography follows a private/public key system where both keys are derived from an enormous semiprime, and its two prime factors. The security of the entire internet is built on the fact that the only way to crack the encryption is to factor the semiprime number, a process which would take the most powerful supercomputer of today longer than the entire age of the universe.
So basically, it’s secure. That’s kind of the whole point.
The problem is that a quantum computer can factor enormous semiprimes in its sleep. No problem — bring out the real math.
The most promising alternative to modern digital cryptography is quantum cryptography (you’re probably starting to see a pattern emerge here). Quantum cryptography exchanges and verifies public and private keys via the polarization of individual photons, which are sent to and fro through fiber optic cables or beamed from space by high powered lasers. Yes, I have a link. This is theoretically more secure, even completely unbreakable according to some physicists, as a result of the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle — the basic idea being that you can’t observe a quantum particle without changing its state; so in the event a signal is compromised, the receiving parties would know immediately that something wasn’t right.
Of course, quantum cryptography is not a perfect system; there are huge technical challenges to overcome in order to develop a working model, and even when we do get something to work, it might not be an entirely foolproof system. I’ll save those details for another article.
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