Quantum hacking: What is it and should we be concerned?

What is Quantum hacking?

Quantum hacking is exactly what it sounds like — using quantum computing systems to carry out malicious criminal activity, breach data and cause havoc. And while quantum hacking isn't a major problem yet, with the continued development and research that large corporations, universities and even governments are putting into these powerful systems, a real quantum hacking threat may not be as far away as people think.

One of the most common — and oldest — public-key systems for secure data transmission is the RSA cryptosystem, which came about in the 1970's. For more than 60 years, this cryptography system has done an effective job at protecting data — but now, the conversation is starting to change.

Revelations about quantum computing and how it can be used to break otherwise successful public-key cryptography systems have been pretty well-known since the 90s. But, it's not until recently that it's become a bigger concern for organizations and other entities who store massive amounts of sensitive data.

Quantum computing systems do exist, but full-scale machines have yet to see the light of day. They aren't cheap or easy to build. That's because, as you can probably imagine, quantum mechanics are complicated. A qubit, or quantum bit, is the term used to describe one basic unit of quantum information. Some existing quantum computers of intermediate size include anywhere between 100 and 500 qubits, each single unit costing an estimated $10,000 US dollars.

Further, IBM is promising a more than 1,000 qubit quantum computing system by 2023, something never before seen. So, while the cost of these machines is extraordinarily high, progress in quantum mechanics suggests that these powerful machines may become commonplace in the near future. The incessant development of newer and better tech never slows down, and we must be ready to protect our data when it inevitably arrives. According to some experts, that may be as little as 10 years.

Circuit board with a digitized brain at its center.
The future of quantum computing is near, and we must be prepared.

Who will threat actors target with quantum hacking?

Hacking, even without the aid of quantum machines, is a major problem for many organizations. Industries that store tremendous amounts of sensitive information are more likely to be targeted by bad actors. Today, some of the most at-risk industries include healthcare, public administration, finance and education.

With the introduction of quantum computing, those affected industries are unlikely to change. They will still be the ones storing the most eye-catching and valuable data. Quantum computers will make it easier than ever for criminals to breach organizations and get away with that information. That's not to say that other industries have less to worry about, though. As quantum computing becomes more of a reality and widespread, all industries — and individuals — should be educated on and abide by cyber security best practices.

Current best practices and prevention measures are likely going to change, too. In the coming years, organizations will need to become more resilient to cyber threats in order to protect their data from these powerful computers. So, the question then becomes: What can we do to protect ourselves?

Preventing quantum hacking

Luckily, researchers and developers are racing to create new algorithms that are capable of protecting data from the looming threat of quantum hacking. Today, there are three major solutions that are being discussed, as outlined by Francois Candelon, Maxime Courtaux Patel and Jean-Francois Bobier in their co-authored piece for Fortune magazine:

  • Post-quantum cryptography, which refers to the development of new, quantum computing-proof encryption algorithms.
  • Quantum key distribution, which pertains to the use of quantum physics to distribute keys randomly between users, while requiring a global network of optical links.
  • Air-gapping, or isolating networks from the internet, which is likely to be impractical.

These solutions, some of which are already being tested and implemented, offer hope for the future of quantum computing. We stand to gain a lot from advancements in technology, but there's also a lot to lose if we aren't careful.

It's not all bleak, though, because quantum computers are actually an incredibly revolutionary technology that will allow us to do more — scientifically and technologically — than ever before. Like most good things, there are some caveats. So, it's critical that we get ahead, and stay ahead of them so we can enjoy all the good that quantum computing has to offer, all while protecting data and mitigating as much risk as possible.

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