Quantum computing and cybersecurity: risk or opportunity?

The quantum rush

According to an article from Figaro published in March 2022, more than 23% of the world’s largest companies are currently working on quantum technologies. The World Economic Forum report from September 2022 shows that more than 50% of IT companies hire in this sector. Therefore, governments and companies invest heavily in research and development of the whole. In addition, the world’s great powers have a huge advantage, in terms of their size and economy, which allows them to be at the forefront of research in the quantum field.

Because of the potential for technological disruption, developed countries – United States, China, European Union member countries, etc. – engage in the remarkable competition in investments aimed at quantum supremacy.

In October 2014, the United States declared research and development of quantum technologies a national priority. Building on this momentum, in 2018 the National Quantum Initiative Act which defines their quantum strategy. This law involves the creation of a committee dedicated to quantum computing where the members of National Institute of Standards and Technology and NASA. In addition, major American companies are advancing in the sector:

  • The collaboration of Google with NASA in August 2020 the first quantum simulation to be performed on the computer of Google ;

  • IBM builds world’s most powerful quantum computing chip with 433 qubits;

  • Microsoft has developed its own open source programming language.

China was not to be outdone and in 2016 launched its research project Quantum Experiments on the Space Scale. The following year, the government invested in the construction of a quantum computing laboratory. In December 2020, the Jiuzhang computer solved the boson sampling problem in 200 seconds. A recent version of this calculator is in development and should use the 113 identified photons. In 2015, the company Alibaba confirmed its desire to impose itself on this market by creating its own research laboratory.

For its part, Europe is planning huge investments: in 2021, the European Council announced aid of 7 billion euros for quantum research. In addition, member countries invest in research organizations; through the CEA, France aims to become the world’s third power in quantum technology and is implementing a national strategy dedicated to quantum technologies. In 2013, the United Kingdom defined its quantum strategy which led to the creation of a national center for quantum computing. Governments also invest in promising companies. Thus, Germany invested 67 million euros in the British company Universal Quantum. In 2019, Russia plans to invest 50 billion rubles in the quantum sector.

The quantum computer: a boon for many fields

A quantum computer is similar to a classical computer but it uses qubits and is subject to the laws of quantum physics: superposition (considering that a particle is simultaneously in different states), entanglement (two particles, which have the same properties, are said to be entangled and take the same value when the state of one of them is measured; they can influence each other despite distance of separation) and not locality. Which means that the quantum computer performs a quantum of computation at the same time.

The interest of quantum computers results from the fact that they can solve calculations that are still inaccessible to classical computing power (classical computers) in a decisive time. So they offer many opportunities: to process huge masses of data and make big calculations in a few minutes, to invent molecules (pharmacy and medicine), to optimize logistics, etc. . In the service of fighting corruption, the quantum computer undertakes to collect, process and analyze massive data in real time, especially in improving financial control.

Quantum technologies are of particular interest to the defense sector. In fact, it improves detection, calculation and communication systems: replacing geolocation systems with GPS satellites thanks to the quantum computer that determines the variations. Intelligence (decryption of confidential data), surveillance and reconnaissance will be favored with the advent of quantum computing.

In health, the interest of the quantum computer lies in the description and calculation of new molecules to be used for the creation and improvement of drugs: treatment of Alzheimer’s, cancer, inflammation research, etc.

The interest of quantum computers results from the fact that they can solve calculations that are still inaccessible to classical computing power (classical computers) in a decisive time. »

However, one of the biggest risks of the quantum computer concerns its potential use of Peter Shor’s quantum algorithm, known as Shor’s algorithm, which makes it possible to decompose into prime numbers (used for the RSA algorithm, discovered by Ronald Rivest, Adi. Shamir and Leonard Adleman) enormous numbers. It can factor the latter in record time. If this algorithm is implanted in a quantum computer, the latter will be able to decipher many systems such as the confidentiality of a bank card and will be a real threat for RSA cryptography, cybersecurity, and may have a direct impact on national security.

Most security systems use this RSA cryptography, which is strong enough to withstand a conventional calculation. Mastering quantum computing will provide decryption capabilities that can quickly break many locks: protected websites (HTTPS), bitcoin encryption, secret documents, etc.

A cybersecurity threat?

Asymmetric encryption provides confidentiality, integrity, and authentication. A quantum computer, if cryptography systems are not upgraded to post-quantum systems, can access critical business data very quickly by breaking all passwords. This is why ANSSI and many IT consultants warn against its dangers.

Data protection is important for a company, a person, an institution, etc. In fact, quantum computers can easily decipher encrypted transactions. The hackers will have easy access to secure payment systems and be able to hijack them. Other threats are also related to validating SSL connections (Secure Socket Layer) or TLS (Transport Layer Secure) related to commercial transactions on the Internet, the authenticity of electronic signatures, the confidentiality of digital envelope protocols, cryptocurrency mining, etc.

Many cyberattacks highlight the indispensable role of cybersecurity players. In developing post-quantum cryptography tools, researchers hope to maintain good computer system security despite the appearance of super-powerful quantum computers. The quantum computer could also serve as a reliability test for these new tools.

At present, the commercialization of a quantum computer is still a long way off, mainly due to technical obstacles. For example, qubits are only stable at temperatures close to absolute zero (ie close to -273°C). Then it seemed obvious that the first quantum computers would be enormous machines. In addition, companies launched in this venture face a talent shortage because industrial research and development requires university specialists (quantum physics, astronomy, etc.), usually doctors or doctoral student.

While the quantum computer is not yet accessible to the market, quantum and post-quantum research is still underway. Although post-quantum cryptography seems necessary to ensure security, it remains clear that the hackers try to avoid these systems. The quantum computer seems to represent both a threat and an opportunity for cybersecurity. Computer system security players are unlikely to be surprised by the arrival of quantum supercomputers, but need to continue to find flaws in security systems to strengthen them better.

Tiphaine de Rauglaudre

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