Quantum computers open up computing possibilities further than we can imagine, and would have the power to carry out tasks which classical computers would never be able to do. Quantum mechanics is still relatively new and there is much about it still to learn. The principle behind quantum computing is their use of qubits. Standard computers use ‘bits’, which can be thought of as on and off switches. Off is represented by a 0 and on is represented by a 1. Every program, website and app we use takes millions of bits in either their on or off function to complete tasks. This works great for numerous applications, though does not factor in uncertainty. This is where qubits come in- they allow for uncertainty and the ability to tackle problems which a typical computer could never begin to handle. The scope of quantum computers is vast, offering the ability to solve problems of our wildest dreams, such as curing Alzheimer’s and modelling patterns of individual electrons. Quantum computers do exist today, though they produce high error rates in each task performed. However, large companies such as Google and IBM are racing to produce the first highly successful quantum computer, so their existence in years to come must be considered.
Although exciting and hugely impressive, the notion of quantum computers poses a significant threat to cyber security, as standard cryptographic measures could be easily broken down by quantum computers. The majority of the internet is protected by public-key cryptography, which stays secure due to the difficult mathematical calculations at play in this mode of security. Though currently successful at protecting most information online, public-key cryptography would be easily solved by quantum computers.
With this threat in mind and on the horizon, it is important to prepare for quantum-safe cryptography. Although not in existence on a threatening scale at the moment, the fact that quantum computers are a very real possibility in the future is a threat to current information. This is because current, encrypted data could be stored and then decrypted when quantum computers are available. Because of this, the threat of quantum computers is real today, as it means that current data could be easily accessed in the future. This is only likely a threat to organisations with very important information of high value, as attackers would need to spend money and resources storing these vast amounts of information, so it would have to be very much worth their while.
Applying quantum-safe cryptography (QSC) as soon as possible is certainly the best way to mitigate the threat from quantum computers. QSC will be available from 2022-24, from when the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released its standards of QSC. Large corporations should begin to consider the threat of quantum computing and QSC in their long-term plans for cyber security, though it is recommended that companies continue their use of good cyber security until standards-compliant QSC products are available. Understanding the threat of quantum computing is important, but waiting for the right technologies to protect against this is the best way to ensure that protection will be successful. QSC products are continually being developed and tested, and the NIST will guide organisations on what to do and what to use once they have developed their standards for QSC.