Though likely well over a decade away, the quantum computing revolution will fundamentally redefine both hacking and cybersecurity.
A spate of recent cyberattacks has thrust data security to the forefront of many conversations in the networking world. More valuable personal and corporate information is being created, transmitted, and stored online than ever before, and it’s no exaggeration to say that future internet usage will pivot on whether users feel reasonably confident that their data is secure.
As things stand, companies and private citizens can take any number of preventative steps to protect their data from malicious parties, but even cutting-edge cybersecurity measures may soon be undermined by a new and radically different kind of technology: quantum computing.
In order to fully understand the paradigm-shifting potential of quantum computing, we need to take a step back and review how things are currently done.
Generally speaking, data encryption algorithms work by virtue of sheer probability. When one encrypts their information according to the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) — one of the most common symmetric encryption protocols among enterprises — they create a decryption key made up of 128 bits. There are precisely 340 undecillion, or 2128, possible 128-bit AES keys.
Provided a cybercriminal has the ability to test one trillion keys per second, testing every possible AES key would take over 10 quintillion years, roughly 785 million times the age of the visible universe. Of course, a cybercriminal could get lucky and stumble across the right 128-bit combination within the first hundred trillion attempts, but the odds of this happening are outrageously small.
Considering the near impossibility of reliably hacking a 128-bit AES key, the fact that an ordinary quantum computing system could run through all possible AES keys in under six months is remarkable. If a well-resourced ring of cybercriminals were to get their hands on a series of mature quantum computing devices, encryption protocols like AES would become all but useless.
In short, the tremendous computing power of a quantum device stems from the fundamentally different behavior of its elemental parts. Unlike normal computing bits — which either represent a 1 or a 0 — quantum bits, or “qubits,” can represent both values simultaneously, a phenomenon known as “coherent superposition.”
This phenomenon dramatically reduces the number of computational steps a computer must take in order to “solve” a traditional encryption key. For example, in order to unlock a 100-bit elliptic curve (EC) algorithm, a traditional computer would have to take as many as 1.125 quadrillion steps. A quantum computer, on the other hand, would only need around 50 steps.
The good news, however, is that qubits offer their own solution to the cybersecurity problems they present. Information stored at a quantum level is incredibly sensitive and can be fundamentally altered even by the mere act of observation.
Though the underlying infrastructure of quantum networking is still very much in development, in broad terms, a quantum network functions by using photons to transmit information between single atoms, which when properly isolated act as “quantum memory.”
In theory, a quantum internet user would send a series of photons that are “programmed” with a unique encryption key for a particular message across an optical fiber. The nature of photons is such that they are noticeably changed as soon as someone measures them, meaning a cybercriminal attempting to intercept a quantum decryption key will leave their “fingerprints” all over it. If the intended recipient of the transmission receives it and notices that the photons have been tampered with, they will know that something is amiss and can request a new key.
As fascinating as the prospect of quantum computing is, most experts agree that it’s still well over a decade away. This doesn’t mean that networking professionals should ignore it completely, but that quantum encryption shouldn’t be treated as a cybersecurity cure-all.
As such, for the foreseeable future, companies must do everything they can to ensure the strongest information security possible within today’s IT paradigm. Doing so entails any number of steps, but foremost among them is partnering with an experienced, reliable networking expert like Turn-key Technologies.
We’ve been helping companies in a broad range of industries design, build, test, and manage their wired and wireless networks for over two decades, and have the expertise necessary to maximize any company’s network security.
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