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Encryption software market is estimated to reach US $ 12.96 billion by 2022, and encryption hardware market, a whopping US $ 413.85 billion! However, quantum computers can make the existing underlying technology irrelevant, and entirely new encryption technology may be needed.
You want your personal and confidential information to be safe from cyber criminals and prying eyes. You have invested in encryption technology, for e.g. you may have got your private and public keys, or you may have got a symmetric key with 56-bit encryption. Additionally, your government, or another regulatory authority in your country might have enforced data encryption standards that every business and organizations must follow, for e.g. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) in the USA, or General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union (EU). With all the technology and regulatory frameworks, you are sleeping in peace at night. Excellent! The question is: how long? The answer could cause some concerns to you, and it is: quantum computers could make the current encryption technologies redundant, to a varying degree, within a decade!
Encryption is essentially the process to convert plain text into scrambled 'ciphertext', using an unique key. This can be done for data-in-transit, or data-at-rest, i.e. stored in a hard drive. Another algorithm, complementary to the first one, can convert the ciphertext into plain text, and this is called decryption. Decryption requires the unique key that was used during encryption, that unique key holds all the secrecy. You lose your encryption unique key to a hacker, and your sensitive data is now with the cyber criminal!
The fundamental premise of the current encryption technologies is to make it extremely hard for cyber criminals to crack the encryption code, i.e. the computer of the cyber criminal will have to do so much of hard work that it could take it several billion of years to complete. This extraordinarily long time to crack the encryption key is what disincentivizes the cyber criminal, and forms the backbone of the success that the current encryption technologies boast of.
Let's take a look at two leading encryption technologies, with particular focus on the mathematical foundation of the technologies:
Today's computers, also called 'classical computers', find it hard to crack today's encryption keys, because of the limitation in their processing powers. This is because today's computers store information in “binary digits”, i.e. “bits”. A bit can only have 0 or 1 at any given point in time, and no other state is possible.
However, another computing technology is coming, called quantum computing. Quantum computers are not yet commercialized, they are at a stage of research, development, experimentation, and refinement.
Instead of 'bits', quantum computers have “Quantum bits” or “qubits”. Qubits can hold a superposition of 0 and 1 states any time. The more qubits there are, higher is the number of states simultaneously held by all the qubits together. The algorithms in the quantum computer are called “Quantum gates”, which are building blocks that simultaneously operate on all possible states of all qubits. Going beyond the realms of theory, this means that the quantum computers can operate much faster that classical computers.
What does it mean for today's encryption technology? A lot, for e.g.:
If you trade in cryptocurrencies, and have read this far, then you know that your encrypted wallets won't be safe when quantum computers arrive. However, what about the Bitcoin and Ethereum protocols, i.e. the underlying blockchains? Are they safe?
Cryptocurrencies are built on blockchain technology, which is a decentralized database, where every computer on the network have a shared version of the entire information on the blockchain, which is also the latest version. Block records, also called 'blocks', are interlinked in a predetermined protocol, and every computer on the network have equal point of authority, everyone can create a new block. Hence, ensuring the correct order of transactions is vital, to maintain data integrity, and the consensus algorithm in blockchain ensures only the record approved by the majority of nodes, i.e. computers on the network, can go into the blockchain. “Miners”, i.e. a combination of special-purpose software, specially designed powerful hardware, and their users, mint new cryptocurrency coins in this blockchain network, and they get rewarded with a fraction of the new coin they mint. It's a competitive environment, and mining a new cryptocurrency coin essentially requires the miner to solve a cryptographic puzzle. The miners not only have to provide the information for the transaction they are trying to create, but also the reference to the last recorded block, and this is called 'proof of work' (POW). Giving reference to the last recorded block is hard, because the miner has to try one number after another, in a competitive environment, and only if the miner can complete this massive number-crunching work at a speed higher than the other miners, the consensus algorithm in the blockchain collectively approves the transaction, and new coin is minted. Since miners operate individually, no one is able to gather the majority of the computing power on the network, and hence the consensus algorithm prevents hacking. However, if a malicious user enters the network with his quantum computer, he can potentially control over 50% of the computing power in the network, due to immensely powerful quantum computer. This user can delete transactions even before they are approved on the blockchain, and create new transactions by simply overpowering the remaining computing power on the network, which is < 50%. There is a good news for the cryptocurrency traders. A group of students in the National University of Singapore have analyzed the projected development of quantum computing, and they conclude that the specially designed hardware currently used for cryptocurrency mining will remain ahead of quantum computers for the next decade. All bets are off after that!
Responsible communities, businesses, organizations and institutions look two-to-three decades ahead and prepare for future. We can see that effort on part of some of the cryptography experts too, in their endeavor to mount a response to the threat that quantum computers pose to encryption, for e.g.: