Quantum Computers Are Coming
The advent of better quantum computers is something to be excited about. Research on developing more practical quantum computers abound, including those that can make it work as a consumer product—and not just limited to its current enterprise versions.
As a brief recap of this tech, quantum computers operate on a faster and more efficient level of computing. This is made possible by the use of quantum bits (or qubits) to carry information. Qubits are 0s and 1s encoded with two distinguishable quantum states. Unlike the binary bits used in classical computers, qubits are capable of processing vastly more data and information, largely because they can function as both 0 and 1.
Qubits, however, have a short lifespan and require rather extreme conditions to sustain the "superposition" and "entanglement" they rely on. Much of quantum computing research has been devoted to solving "the problem of qubits." As soon as this hurdle is definitively overcome, it would only be a matter of time before practical quantum computers are realized.
A Risk to Today's Encryption
All this is well and good. Their improved processing power makes quantum computers the ideal tools for research, and even solving questions currently unanswered due to the lack of adequate equipment. Quantum computing will revolutionize a number of important fields, including medicine and astronomy.
But it looks like it will also change cybersecurity—thanks to how quantum computing is expected to be absurdly good at cracking complex mathematical problems, the backbone of major encryption approaches today.
According to a recent report by the Global Risk Institute, there is a "one in seven chance that some of the fundamental public-key cryptography tools upon which we rely today will be broken [by emerging quantum computing technologies] by 2026 and a 50% chance by 2031."
Breaking cryptography isn't like the number of computer hacks executed in cyber attacks we see today. Cryptography, according to the report, is a fundamental building block of cybersecurity and it takes many years to replace. Basically, cryptography provides protection to online transactions, emails, financial and medical records—all of which could be rendered vulnerable by quantum computers.
Quantum for a Quantum
Of course, the threat isn't there yet. More importantly, people are beginning to pay attention, including the NSA. The threat to encryption posed by quantum computing isn't unsolvable. The same mechanism that makes it vulnerable can also turn it "quantum computing-proof," so to speak.
There is such a thing as quantum cryptography, which uses photon-based qubits to securely transmit information encoded into the quantum states of particles. This quantum communication makes it possible for the recipient to detect attempts to intercept incoming messages. And it isn't exactly new.
Its applications include what's called the quantum key distribution (QKD). Basically, it uses quantum communication to share keys securely, which will be used to decrypt messages sent over conventional networks. Unfortunately, low bandwidth makes the system currently untenable, despite having been demonstrated to work in several cities.
This is just one possible work around. Other methods are being developed, including code-based cryptography and lattice-based cryptography. In any case, there's time to improve it. In the same way that quantum computing is still being refined, network infrastructure can be improved to allow for quantum secure cryptography.