IBM warns of instant breaking of encryption by quantum computers: 'Move your data today'

Welcome to the future transparency of today as quantum computers reveal all currently encrypted secrets -- a viable scenario within just a few years.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor
(Image: Churchill Club)

Quantum computers will be able to instantly break the encryption of sensitive data protected by today's strongest security, warns the head of IBM Research.

This could happen in a little more than five years because of advances in quantum computer technologies.

"Anyone that wants to make sure that their data is protected for longer than 10 years should move to alternate forms of encryption now," said Arvind Krishna, director of IBM Research.

Krishna was speaking at a meeting of The Churchill Club in San Francisco on a panel (above, second from right) discussing quantum computers in business. The panel, which included Kam Moler, a professor of Physics at Stanford University, as well as Bob Stolte, a managing director at JPMorgan, was moderated by journalist Martin Giles (first from left).

Quantum computers can solve some types of problems near-instantaneously compared with billions of years of processing using conventional computers.

Moler said people might feel safe because they have done everything they are supposed to do to secure their existing data -- but quantum computing will break it. "I do think that's scary," she said.

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It has been known since the 1980s that quantum computers would be great at factoring large numbers, which is the foundation of public key cryptography. But building large enough quantum computers was not possible then.

Advances in novel materials and in low-temperature physics have led to many breakthroughs in the quantum computing field in recent years. and large commercial quantum computer systems will soon be viable and available within five years.

Krishna said that there is a type of encryption, called Lattice cryptography, that mathematically has been proven to be resistant to quantum computing attacks. So far, no known algorithms can break this method of encoding data.

"The good news is that it is as efficient as our current encryption so it won't cost more," he said. (Details on IBM's Lattice cryptography here.)

(Image: IBM Q)

Quantum computers machines are currently rare and very expensive but can potentially solve many tough computing problems. The IBM Q is an attempt to build a commercial system, and IBM has allowed more than 80,000 developers run applications through a cloud-based interface.

Not all types of applications will benefit from quantum computers. The best suited are problems that can be broken up into parallel processes. It requires different coding techniques.

"We still don't know which applications will be best to run on quantum computers," Krishna said. "We need a lot of new algorithms"

In addition to solving tough computing problems, quantum computers could save huge amounts of energy, as server farms proliferate and applications such as bitcoin grow in their compute needs. Each computation takes just a few watts, yet it could take several server farms to accomplish if it were run on conventional systems.

Moler said we still need additional breakthroughs, such as new types of materials with specific properties at temperatures at near absolute zero.

Single atoms -- qubits -- are held in place, but temperature fluctuations can create a lot of noise, which creates errors. Additional qubits greatly increase the computational power of a system, but that requires even more qubits for error-correction.

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It is not known the optimum number of qubits for each type of problem.

Also, there are substantial advances in software technologies needed to take advantage of the computing capabilities of quantum systems. And new algorithms have to be developed to handle the error corrections.

Krishna is certain that within five years there will be widespread commercial use of quantum computers. But don't wait, said Krishna, "begin experimenting right now."

Photos: From the first PCs to the ThinkPad – classic IBM machines

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