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Organizations are preparing for cyber attacks from quantum computers

In the middle of the houses and parking lots sits GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters, in this aerial photo taken on October 10, 2005.

David Goddard | Getty Images

LONDON – A little-known British company called Arqit is quietly preparing companies and governments for what they see as the next big threat to their cyber defense: quantum computers.

It is still an incredibly young field of research, but some in the technology industry ̵

1; including those like Google, Microsoft and IBM – believe that quantum computing will become a reality in the next decade. And that could be worrying news for organizations’ cyber security.

David Williams, co-founder and chairman of Arqit, says quantum computers will be millions of times faster than classic computers, and will be able to break into one of the most widely used cryptography methods.

“The older encryption we all use to protect our secrets is called PKI,” or public key infrastructure, Williams told CNBC in an interview. “It was invented in the ’70s.”

“PKI was originally designed to secure the communication of two computers,” Williams added. “It was not designed for a hyperconnected world where there are one billion devices worldwide communicating in a complex round of interaction.”

Arqit, which plans to be listed via a merger with a blank check company, counts customers such as BT, Sumitomo Corporation, the British government and the European Space Agency as customers. Some of the team previously worked for GCHQ, the British intelligence agency. The company recently emerged from “hidden mode” – a temporary state of secrecy – and the listing could not be more timely.

The past month has seen a wave of devastating ransomware attacks on organizations from the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the United States, to JBS, the world’s largest meat packer.

Microsoft and several US authorities were meanwhile among those affected by an attack on the IT company SolarWinds. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order aimed at strengthening the United States’ cyber defense.

What is Quantum Computing?

Quantum computation aims to apply the principles of quantum physics – a scientific body that seeks to describe the world at the level of atoms and subatomic particles – to computers.

While today’s computers use one and zeros to store information, a quantum computer relies on quantum bits or qubits, which can consist of a combination of one and zeros simultaneously, which is known in the field as superposition. These qubits can also be linked together through a phenomenon called entanglement.

Simply put, this means that quantum computers are far more powerful than today’s machines and are able to solve complex calculations much faster.

Kasper Rasmussen, associate professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, told CNBC that quantum computers are designed to make “certain very specific operations much faster than classical computers.”

That is not to say that they will be able to solve all tasks. “This is not a case of: ‘This is a quantum computer, so it just runs the application you load there much faster.’ That is not the idea, Rasmussen said.

This can be a problem for modern encryption standards, according to experts.

“When you and I use PKI encryption, we do half of a difficult math problem: master factorization,” Williams told CNBC. “You give me a number, and I work out what the prime numbers are to calculate the new number. A classic computer can’t break it, but a quantum computer will.”

Williams believes his company has found the solution. Instead of relying on public key encryption, Arqit sends out symmetric encryption keys – long, random numbers – via satellites, which it calls “quantum key distribution.” Virgin Orbit, which invested in Arqit as part of the SPAC agreement, plans to launch the satellites from Cornwall, England, by 2023.

Why does it matter?

Some experts say that it will take some time before quantum computers finally arrive in a way that could pose a threat to existing cyber defenses. Rasmussen does not expect them to exist in any meaningful way for at least another ten years. But he is not complacent.

“If we accept the fact that quantum computers will exist in ten years, anyone with the foresight to record important conversations can now be able to decrypt them when quantum computers come into being,” Rasmussen said.

“Public key cryptography is literally everywhere in our digital world, from your bank card, to the way you connect to the Internet, to your car key, to IoT devices (Internet of Things),” said Ali Kaafarani, CEO and Founder of Cybersecurity . startup PQShield, told CNBC.

The US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology wants to update its standards for cryptography to include what is known as post-quantum cryptography, algorithms that can be secure against an attack by a quantum computer.

Kaafarani expects NIST to decide on new standards by the end of 2021. But he warns: “For me, the challenge is not the quantum threat and how can we build encryption methods that are secure. We solved it.”

“The challenge now is how companies must prepare for the transition to the new standards,” said Kaafarani. “Lessons from the past show that it is too slow and takes years and decades to switch from one algorithm to another.”

Williams believes companies need to be ready now, adding that it is not the solution to form post-quantum algorithms that take public key cryptography and make it “even more complex”. He alluded to a report from NIST which noted challenges with cryptographic solutions by quantity.

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