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“Quantum computer will break data security,” worries grow

by News Room
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An employee of a company in Stuttgart, Germany works on a quantum computer

NOS news

  • Joost Schellevis

    reporter Tech

  • Bouwe van Straten

    Science reporter

  • Joost Schellevis

    reporter Tech

  • Bouwe van Straten

    Science reporter

It still seems a long way off, but organizations need to arm themselves against the quantum computer. Twenty members of the European Parliament defend this in an open letter to the European Commission. There are fears that quantum computers can largely circumvent commonly used data security. The AIVD is also concerned.

“We need to start this now,” says MEP Bart Groothuis, who initiated the letter. There are solutions, but moving to them takes time. Otherwise, the consequences are big: for the sensitive communications of governments and companies, but also for citizens who communicate with each other on e.g. WhatsApp.

All of these systems use encryption keys to prevent unauthorized persons from reading, from jealous partners to foreign intelligence services to Internet criminals. The encryption works thanks to an ingenious mathematical shuffling of data. Ordinary computers cannot practically fix that mess because the number of possible mathematical combinations is so large that in some cases the Milky Way galaxy has already been destroyed before all possible outcomes have been tried.

The fear is that quantum computers, which work in a fundamentally different way, may be able to do that. They haven’t gotten that far yet, but the moment when this is possible, also known as “Q-Day,” is approaching, according to experts.

We see a huge hunger for information in countries like China.

Intelligence service AIVD

It may take another ten or twenty years, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening now. “We see a huge hunger for information in countries like China,” the AIVD said in a written response. These countries are now intercepting data in the hope that they will be able to crack it at some point.

Therefore, companies and governments working with sensitive information that must remain secret until then should be concerned. This is also what European Parliament member Groothuis says. “We cannot take that risk. The most important organizations must start this now.” This applies, for example, to governments and so-called critical companies, from water boards to energy companies.

Because quantum computers work so fundamentally differently, they might be able to guess the mathematical keys. “You have at least 2000 for that qubits Julia Cramer, Associate Professor of Quantum and Society at Leiden University, says. “There has been enormous progress both by companies like Google and IBM and in universities, including in the Netherlands. But those 2,000 qubits are still a long way off.”

Qubits are also highly error-prone. “You can overcome this by combining several of them together,” Cramer says. “If you have 2,000 incomplete qubits, you might be left with a few tens of qubits of computing power.” That’s why he doesn’t expect quantum computers to threaten current keys ten years from now. “But since quantum systems have many possibilities and the possibility of breaking today’s codes, we are already thinking about this.”

Communicate confidentially

The consequences are greatest in so-called asymmetric encryption. This enables confidential communication: between computer systems, for example when you visit your bank’s website, but also between people, such as via WhatsApp. The main techniques used in this form of encryption are most suitable for the kind of calculations that a quantum computer can perform.

But switching to other algorithms that are more robust to quantum computers is not simply possible: both the sender and receiver must use the same technology. In the case of a bank website, both the bank’s web server and the web browser must support the same new technology.

Successful adjustment therefore depends on the software manufacturers. They have to adopt new technology. This is possible as of this year, as followers have now been selected to withstand quantum computers.

The perpetrators of this must therefore get to work, says the AIVD. “The AIVD emphasizes the urgency of having sufficient resources and suppliers to deliver quantum-secure products and upgrade existing products as quickly as possible.”

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