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Organizations are preparing for cyberattacks by quantum computers

Among the houses and parking lots is GCHQ, the 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 businesses and governments for what it sees as the next major threat to their cybersecurity: quantum computers.

This is still an incredibly young field of study, but some in the technology industry ̵

1; including Google, Microsoft and IBM – believe that quantum computing will become a reality in the next decade. And that can be worrying news about organizations’ cybersecurity.

David Williams, co-founder and chairman of Arqit, says quantum computers will be several million times faster than traditional computers and will be able to penetrate one of the most widely used cryptography methods.

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

“PKI was originally designed to provide communication on two computers,” Williams added. “It’s not designed for a hyperconnected world with a billion devices around the world communicating in a complex circle of interactions.”

Arqit, which plans to go public by merging with a company with a blank check, counts as BT, Sumitomo Corporation, the British government and the European Space Agency as customers. Some of his team had previously worked for GCHQ, the British intelligence agency. The company has recently come out of stealth mode – a temporary state of secrecy – and its listing on the stock markets could not be more timely.

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

Meanwhile, Microsoft and several US government agencies were among those affected by the attack on IT firm SolarWinds. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order aimed at strengthening US cyber defense.

What is quantum computation?

Quantum calculations aim to apply the principles of quantum physics – a scientific body that tries to describe the world at the level of atoms and subatomic particles – to computers.

While today’s computers use ones and zeros to store information, the quantum computer relies on quantum bits or qubits, which can consist of a combination of ones and zeros at the same time, something known in this field as superposition. These qubits can also be connected together by a phenomenon called entanglement.

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

Casper Rasmussen, an associate professor of computer science at Oxford University, told CNBC that quantum computers were designed to perform “some very specific operations much faster than classical computers.”

This does not mean that they will be able to solve every task. “That’s not the case with, ‘It’s a quantum computer, so it just runs much faster every application you put there.’ That’s not the idea, “Rasmussen said.

According to experts, this may be a problem for modern encryption standards.

“When you and I use PKI encryption, we’re making halves of a difficult math problem: a simple coefficient,” Williams told CNBC. “You give me a number and I determine what the prime numbers are to calculate the new number. The classic computer can’t break it, but the quantum computer will.”

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

Why does it matter?

Some experts say it will take some time before quantum computers finally arrive in a way that could pose a threat to existing cybersecurity. Rasmussen does not expect them to exist in any meaningful way for at least another 10 years. But he is not complacent.

“If we accept the fact that quantum computers will exist in 10 years, anyone who has the foresight to record important conversations now may be able to decipher them when quantum computers appear,” 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 (Internet of Things) devices,” Ali Kaafarani, CEO and Founder of cybersecurity launching PQShield, told CNBC.

The US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology seeks to update its cryptography standards to include what is known as post-quantum cryptography, algorithms that can be protected against 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 we can build secure encryption methods. We have decided that.”

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

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

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