Engineering 101

Quantum Quandry

by Jon Gabay, engineer

So, you think your passwords are protecting you from hackers and criminals? Think again. Digital data and encryption have never been 100% secure, but with the increasing advancement of quantum computers, our digital data is under even more threat. Hackers can use typical home computers to find passwords, especially since most people use terms they associate with, like an old address, a pet’s name, or other terms they will easily remember.

A typical Pentium machine can try about 10,000 passwords a second, while standard supercomputers can try a billion passwords per second. Even so, estimates claim it takes between 1 to 12 months to crack a strong password using readily available computer technology today.

Quantum computers can threaten national security, private medical data, financial systems, and more. U.S. government agencies have already expressed concerns about the safety of sensitive and defense sites and the potential use of digital currencies. The U.S. does not lead in the race to design, build, and deploy quantum computers, and its place in the race exacerbates the risk. China is outpacing the United States in quantum computer technology and implementation.

In 2019, the leading global technology firm, Google, reported that its 53-qubit Sycamore processor took only 3.3 minutes to complete a task that would have taken a supercomputer a minimum of 2.5 days. In October of this year, China claimed that their Zuchongzhi 66-bit qubit computer completed the same task 1 million times faster using only 56 qubits.

The ability to break security is not the only thing quantum computers can do well. Military simulations use supercomputers to arrive at optimal strategies for military maneuvers and planning. The armed forces could use quantum technology to secure communications due to entanglement properties. In 2020, the Chinese implemented the first space-based ‘secure’ communications links using its Micius satellites between two ground stations 1,000 miles away.

In another first, China reported the ability to use nano-scale quantum dots to transmit secure data over fiber cables at distances of 300 kilometers. This worries defense department personnel. It’s not only the vulnerability of sensitive data but also the simple battlefield fact that the computer that arrives at a firing solution first will win.

The latest claim from China is that it has unveiled the world’s fastest programmable quantum computer. They say it can accomplish in one millisecond what a typical computer would need 30 trillion years to do. With this type of replicated computing ability, an unfriendly power could pose a serious threat: GPS shutdowns, aircraft, banking, communications, power grids, and safety systems in military and industrial sites.

The real capabilities of this technology are most likely shrouded in secrecy. Some say that the military-industrial complex is 40 years ahead of consumer technology.

Imagine if, one day, all personal passwords were cracked and used to create a billion fraudulent transactions. The economy as we know it would crash without a single shot fired. As we speak, Russia is using cyber attacks against Ukraine. This is only one reason that, by executive order, President Biden issued a national security memorandum to boost our quantum technologies and to protect our own critical I.T. infrastructures from quantum cyber attacks.

It’s not just the military or universities and think-tanks that are a threat. Anyone with a smartphone can access the initial Chinese Qianshi quantum computer once the app is loaded. While originally only a 10-qubit machine still based on supercooled superconducting materials, it allows users to pioneer new applications for this emerging technology. The newer cloud-based Baidu Qian Shi quantum computer is a 36-qubit machine with hardware and software integration. It enables users to create more complex algorithms using a standard language on a standard platform.

Most of the world’s greatest minds and thinkers have all agreed that A.I. technology should never be armed and used in warfare. I would like to see a similar statement referencing quantum computing.

With everything interconnected by an I.P. network that was never designed to be secure, everyone must work together to protect our nations and planet from a cyber apocalypse. It is not the citizens who typically start wars, but it is the citizens that suffer the consequences. It would be nice if we could evolve beyond that sad fact.

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