China’s tech threat fuels fears of quantum armageddon

Beijing backed hackers could target encrypted datasets like weapon designs and unlock them at a later date

You might want to call it, the new sum of all fears.

And no, I’m not talking about nuclear weapons – this is something even worse, something that will cause havoc, and, could spark a war.

China’s progress in quantum computing and quantum communication, cannot be ignored.

According to analysts at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, Chinese hackers could target heavily encrypted datasets. They would include weapon designs or details of undercover intelligence officers with a view to unlocking them at a later date when quantum computing makes decryption possible, The Guardian reported.

Exactly when that happens, is anyone’s guess. But they could potentially target and hack anything, such as your Amazon purchases using your various credit cards – nothing would be left, unprotected.

The same report has revealed that Chinese hackers could also steal pharmaceutical, chemical, and material science research before processing it by quantum computers – machines capable of crunching through numbers at unprecedented speed.

What might take a conventional computer a thousand years to determine, can be done by a quantum machine in mere hours – that is just how powerful it is.

Source identities

In a report entitled Chinese threats in the quantum era, Booz Allen Hamilton stated that encrypted data could be stolen by “Chinese threat groups.”

It says quantum-assisted decryption will arrive faster than quantum-assisted encryption, giving hackers a definitive edge, The Guardian reported. And that is definitely bad news.

“Encrypted data with intelligence longevity, like biometric markers, covert intelligence officer and source identities, social security numbers, and weapons’ designs, may be increasingly stolen under the expectation that they can eventually be decrypted,” the study said.

It stressed that “state-aligned cyber threat actors” will start to steal or intercept previously unusable encrypted data. It also added, however, that there was a “very small” likelihood that quantum computing could break the latest encryption methods before 2030.

Analysts have pointed out that quantum computing’s advantages over today’s computing – used in everything from laptops to mobile phones – are at least a decade away. But that might be small solace to US intelligence agencies and military planners at the Pentagon.

“Although quantum computers’ current abilities are more demonstrative than immediately useful, their trajectory suggests that in the coming decades quantum computers will likely revolutionize numerous industries – from pharmaceuticals to materials science – and eventually undermine all popular current public-key encryption methods,” the Booz Allen Hamilton said.

The Booz Allen Hamilton report. Screenshot: Booz Allen Hamilton

Meanwhile, quantum computing is viewed as an exciting new scientific development – one that could literally change the world and how we live in it. For example, it could predict accurately what a complex molecule might do and so pave the way for new drugs and materials, The Guardian reported.

China is already a strong player in the field, and Booz Allen Hamilton said it expected the country to surpass Europe and the US – where IBM recently made the most powerful quantum processor – in quantum-related research and development.

The company has called its new Eagle processor “a key milestone on the path towards practical quantum computation” — the new chip has 127 “qubits,” twice as many as previous IBM processors. In classical computers, the unit of information is called a “bit” and can have a value of either one or zero, BBC News reported.

But its equivalent in a quantum system – the qubit – can be both one and zero at the same time. This is the concept of superposition, where something can exist in multiple states at once.

To harness their power, multiple qubits have to be linked together, a process called entanglement. And with each additional qubit added, the computational power of the processor is effectively doubled.

According to the MIT Technology Review, the US is aware that attackers are collecting sensitive, encrypted data now in the hope that they will be able to unlock it at some point in the future.

Quantum computers

While quantum computers are still in their infancy, incredibly expensive and fraught with problems, officials have made it clear that action must be taken now to protect the US from this long-term danger, the report said.

“The threat of a nation-state adversary getting a large quantum computer and being able to access your information is real,” said Dustin Moody, a mathematician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST.

“The threat is that they copy down your encrypted data and hold on to it until they have a quantum computer. Adversaries and nation-states are likely doing it. It’s a very real threat that governments are aware of. They’re taking it seriously and they’re preparing for it. That’s what our project is doing,” he added.

Faced with this “harvest now and decrypt later” strategy, officials are trying to develop and deploy new encryption algorithms to protect secrets against emerging technology. The US Department of Homeland Security is at the center of this push, the report said. 

“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we wake up one morning and there’s been a technological breakthrough, and then we have to do the work of three or four years within a few months – with all the additional risks associated with that,” said Tim Maurer, who advises the secretary of Homeland Security on cybersecurity and emerging technology.

Sources: The Guardian, BBC News, MIT Technology Review