Experts split on how soon quantum computing is coming

Experts split on how soon quantum computing is coming, but say we should start preparing now

Experts split on how soon quantum computing is coming, but say we should start preparing now

Whether quantum computing is 10 years away -- or is already here -- it promises to make current encryption methods obsolete, so enterprises need to start laying the groundwork for new encryption methods.

A quantum computer uses qubits instead of bits. A bit can be a zero or a one, but a qubit can be both simultaneously, which is weird and hard to program but once folks get it working, it has the potential to be significantly more powerful than any of today's computers.

And it will make many of today's public key algorithms obsolete, said Kevin Curran, IEEE senior member and a professor at the University of Ulster, where he heads up the Ambient Intelligence Research Group.

That includes today's most popular algorithms, he said. For example, one common encryption method is based on the fact that it is extremely difficult to find the factors of very large numbers.

"All of these problems can be solved on a powerful quantum computer," he said.

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He added that the problems are mostly like with public key systems, where the information is encoded and decoded by different people. Symmetric algorithms, commonly used to encrypt local files and databases, don't have the same weaknesses and will survive a bit longer. And increasing the length of the encryption keys will make those algorithms more secure.

For public key encryption, such as that used for online communications and financial transactions, possible post-quantum alternatives include lattice-based, hash-based, and multivariate cryptographic algorithms as well as those that update today's Diffie-Hellman algorithm with supersingular elliptic curves.

Google is already experimenting with some of these, Curran said.

"Google is working with the Lattice-based public-key New Hope algorithm," he said. "They are deploying it in Chrome where a small fraction of connections between desktop Chrome and Google's servers will use a post-quantum key-exchange algorithm. By adding a post-quantum algorithm on top of the existing one, they are able to experiment without affecting user security."

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Some future-proof encryption algorithms have already been developed and are now being tested, but enterprises need to start checking now whether their systems, both those that they have developed themselves and those provided by vendors, are flexible enough to allow old, obsolete algorithms to be early replaced by new ones.

Fortunately, according to Curran, there are already algorithms out there that seem to be workable replacements, and that can run on existing computers.

One company that is paying very close attention to this is Echoworx, which provides on-premises and cloud-based enterprise encryption software.

Quantum computing will break all of today's commonly used encryption algorithms, said Sam Elsharif, vice president of software development at Echoworx. Encryption that today's most sophisticated computer can break only after thousands of years of work will be beaten by a quantum computer in minutes.

"This is obviously very troubling, since it's the core of our business," he said. "Echoworx will be in trouble -- but so will all of today's infrastructure."

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Since longer keys won't work for public key encryption and companies will need to replace their algorithms, the encryption technology needs to be modular.

"It's called cryptographic agility," he said. "It means that you don't hard-wire encryption algorithms into your software, but make them more like pluggable modules. This is how software should be designed, and this is what we do at Echoworks."

Once post-quantum algorithms have been tested and become standards, Echoworks will be able swap out the old ones with the new ones, he said.

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