The era of quantum computing is coming very soon. Like, in a few years. Tops. We could have quantum computers in commercial and enterprise production by 2025, or perhaps even sooner. The advent of quantum computers threatens even our strongest cryptographic ciphers that are deployed by binary computers. So work is well underway to deploy quantum cryptographic technology.
The computer you’re using right now is binary. Binary computers date back to the dawn of electronic computing in the 1940s, and include all computers developed up to now (except for quantum computers in research and development, of course.) Our computers use lots of sophisticated programming languages, but at the most fundamental level in the CPU, data breaks down into binary 1 and 0 bits. On, off. Quantum data is in qubits, which could represent 1, 0, or both 1 and 0. It’s a feature of quantum mechanics that this newly developed technology deploys to its advantage.
Quantum computers currently in development can be programmed to crack binary cryptographic ciphers. They can use Grover’s algorithm to help crack symmetric ciphers, and Shor’s algorithm to help crack asymmetric ciphers. Those are all of the cryptographic algorithms currently in use, and they help protect everything from your personal banking to internet-connected medical appliances. I won’t explain the math because I’m not a cryptographer and I was always better at arts and humanities in school. But basically cryptographic implementations that some cyber attackers wouldn’t bother to crack (because it would take them years), could possibly be cracked in hours by quantum computers. If quantum computers fall into the wrong hands, and they will, they could render all of our current encryption pointless. That puts all of our modern lives at great risk.
And that’s why industry and governments are working together to deploy quantum cryptography.
In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with companies like IBM to find cryptographic algorithms that can withstand cracking attempts made by quantum computers. From a NIST press release:
“The field has narrowed in the race to protect sensitive electronic information from the threat of quantum computers, which one day could render many of our current encryption methods obsolete.” As I wrote in a previous blog, NIST is working on a Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization project, “whose goal is to create a set of standards for protecting electronic information from attack by the computers of both tomorrow and today.”
The NIST hopes to have the project completed by 2022. Meanwhile, Honeywell and the Canadian Space Agency hope to have their quantum cryptographic satellite working in the Earth’s orbit by the end of that year.
Honeywell’s Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite, or QEYSSat for short, will be designed to validate quantum key distribution. The Canadian Space Agency bought the project for about $30 million.
“The QEYSSat mission is the result of a series of research and technology development activities assumed by the Institute for Quantum Computing, located at the University of Waterloo. The institute is part Waterloo-based quantum valley ecosystem, which includes the Quantum Valley Ideas Lab, which recently received about $20 million from a collaborative arrangement between IBM and several universities.
Through QEYSSat’s space demonstration, photons will be pushed through a laser link from a ground station to a microsatellite. This satellite will use QKD methods to establish a key that will be directed to a second ground station. This trial will allow scientists to study how QKD behaves in space, and lay the groundwork for a global network supporting the exchange of quantum keys over long distances.”
The Canadian Space Agency intends for QEYSSat to help implement quantum cryptography for other Canadian government agencies, plus for the private sector in functions like securing our everyday banking.
I’m excited to see how this project develops. All of the money that governments around the world are spending on preparedness for quantum computing is perfectly well spent. Because the day that quantum computers render our current cryptographic technologies pointless is coming very, very soon.