Quantum Computers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Part 2

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Quantum Computers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Part 2

In Part 1 of our blog, we discussed the new and pretty cool abilities stemming from quantum computing. There are plenty of fantastic potential discoveries on the horizon. It’s just that the potential for harm has had more attention so far. And for good reason.

Before we get into the heavy possibilities, let’s talk about how a quantum computer may affect us negatively in a smaller, less critical, way (‘the bad’).  Currently, most industries that rely on random numbers are using those that have been generated by a classical computer (using an algorithm).  This creates what appears on the surface as a random sequence of numbers but, in reality, it’s only pseudo-random.  You can’t create random numbers using math.  It’s impossible.  There will always be what is called a ‘seed’ and that can be cracked to determine the pattern.  Once someone has enough computing power, they would be able to guess seeds created from pseudo-random.  Once they know this, they could best gaming, gambling, and lotteries by predicting the outcome. (Some mathematicians are already figuring out how to do this!)

Changing directions from quantum entropy to cryptography: another threat that would be detrimental to the victim will be the ability to alter documentation that has been digitally signed.  Most legal documents allow for a third-party-trusted digital signature in place of a wet signature.  These signatures use those current encryption methods previously covered in Part 1.  The most common being RSA, an algorithm developed in 1977 (yes, that’s right.  44 years ago) that uses a public key and private key.  There’s already been an algorithm written to break RSA.  It’s called SHOR’s algorithm and all it needs is a quantum computer with enough qubits, and we’re getting closer every day.  Think of all the digital records that we rely on today. Now, think about someone with malicious intent having the ability to alter these documents.  (Now think about if it’s your will, and you’re already gone).  That’s bad-news-bears, right?  Bank transfers, investment option contracts, life insurance policies: all personal, legal documentation that can be tampered with in the future. As my very insightful colleague (Austin Bradley) stated in a previous blog post on this, “Much of our legal lives happen electronically across the internet today, so the threat to our past is already here.”

That ‘threat to our past’ extends well beyond our personal legal documents.  Are you ready? Because here comes ‘the ugly’.  Blockchain: you’ve heard the name.  You know it’s an online ledger.  You know it’s connected to cryptocurrency.  What I’ve recently learned is that the reason it can remain decentralized is due to its reliance on an equal playing field for all those competing to mine blocks.  If one person had significantly more computing power, they could take control of the chain.  The obvious concern is re-writing the records to have money move to the hacker’s account, but blockchain could end up being linked to other record keeping like crypto voting (and we don’t need anyone having further grounds to claim that votes have been deleted).  Next up, Internet of Things (IoT).  Depending on what industry you’re in, you may be less familiar with IoT.  Put simply, it ‘describes the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet.’ (source)

Take a moment to think about all of the modern ‘things’ that fall into this category.  I’ll get you started with a big one: vehicles.  Cars, farm equipment, planes; imagine a bad actor gaining access to an engine part from a commercial aircraft, or hacking your tesla to cause a crash.  Other perilous scenarios that come to mind are, shutting off the power to a hospital, manipulating a water treatment plant, and hacking into anything with a microphone or camera for the purpose of espionage. This leads us to the last of the ‘ugly’ that I would like to highlight: the obtaining of secrets.  This one is particularly ugly because the harvesting of data for the purpose of decrypting later has likely already begun.  Some data’s value doesn’t deteriorate over time.  The technical capabilities of intelligence assets and weapons (think: satellites and jet fighters), agency facilities’ security protocols, and locations of long-term covert operations could certainly fall into that category.  Then there are, of course, the timelier secrets to steal: witness protection information, the names and locations of double agents working for the US, current military plans (the locations of submarines capable of a nuclear strike, maybe?), and sources from which we get highly sensitive information about other countries.  The further down this rabbit hole you go, the scarier the future of security becomes.

In an ideal world, new technology would be used only for ‘good’.  But as we’re all aware, we live in a world where we need security for a reason.  There’s a global race to achieve quantum supremacy. Quantum computers on a small scale are starting to pop up all over the world, and that’s just what we hear about.  How many are being developed in secret?  If the plan is to use it in ‘ugly’ ways, would you want the world to know?

In case you missed Part 1 of our blog series, you can find it here.