Canadian cybersecurity news and thought leadership


Stay With Me, this is Going to Get Quantum Weird

Science and technology were making great strides at the end of the nineteenth century, to the point where we were beginning to discover problems with the reality we thought we lived in. Newtonian physics does a great job of describing what we see around us, but it turns out this is an illusion created by the scale at which we operate. It’s like thinking the earth is flat because it looks that way, but it only looks that way because we’re not big enough to see it; reality is in the eye of the beholder.

What we discovered as we looked closer with better technology was that the universe isn’t a deterministic machine. The double slit experiment caused great confusion because it looked like light was both a wave and a particle. Rutherford’s gold foil experiment suggested that the recently discovered atom was almost entirely empty space. Most of what you breathe in is vacuum! The universe is much stranger than we first thought, and it isn’t deterministic at all, but very much probabilistic. Einstein hated this ‘spooky action at a distance’ quantum nonsense, but through the 20th Century we’ve come to understand that this is how the universe works.  Most people don’t know this because education finds teaching science in a Newtonian way easier. Professor Brian Cox has a good quote in his book, The Quantum Universe: “It’s not Newton for big things and quantum for small things, it’s quantum all the way.”

This emerging quantum awareness created the first quantum revolution. Once we recognized that quantum effects happen around us all the time, we started designing technology that made use of these newly discovered natural phenomena. If you think this is only for exotic university labs, you’re wrong. The flash memory that you’re likely reading this through depends on quantum tunnelling to work, as do lasers, MRIs and super conductors.

So, what’s all this talk about quantum computing and what the heck does this have to do with cybersecurity? In the 1970s many researchers started theorizing about quantum computing and Richard Feynman put it together in the early 80s, then the race was on to build the theory. What’s the difference between this and passive 20th Century quantum technology? We’ve developed the technology and theory now to engineer quantum outcomes rather than just using what nature gives us. As you might imagine, this is incredibly difficult.

I had an intense chat with Dr. Shohini Ghose, the CTO of the Quantum Algorithms Institute at the end of our quantum cybersecurity readiness training day this week in BC. She was (quite rightly) adamant that we can’t know quantum details without observing them and when we observe them, we change them, but my philosophy background has me thinking that I’m going to try anyway. An unobserved universe is entirely probabilistic. It only becomes the reality we see when we perceive it. It reminds me of the crying angels in my favourite Doctor Who episode. This bakes most people’s noodles, but the math clearly indicates that in measuring a photon’s location we can’t also know its velocity and direction – that’s the uncertainty principle in action. I’m probably wrong about all of that, but I’d rather people take a swing at understanding this strangeness rather than being afraid of being wrong.

Alright, we’re halfway through this thing and you haven’t mentioned anything cyber once! If you think about the electronic systems we use, they’re entirely Newtonian. They reduce information to ones and zeroes and produce the kind of certainty we all like, but this is a low-resolution approach that is about to hit its limit. We’re building transistors so small now that electrons are tunnelling through the nanometer thick walls (atoms are mainly empty space, remember?) between transistors, rendering future miniaturization impossible; we’re nearing the limits of our Newtonian illusion. That means the end of Moore’s Law! Panic in the disco!

Quantum computers don’t use electronics as a common base. A quantum computer processor might be ionized particles, or photons, or nanotech engineered superconductors, and those are just a few of the options. By isolating these tiny pieces of the cosmos away from the chaos of creation and applying energy to them in incredibly intricate ways, we can create probability engines that use astonishing mathematics to calculate solutions to problems that linear electronic machines could never touch, but unlike classic computers we need to do this without observing the process or all is lost. Imagine if you had to design the first microprocessors in the dark and you’re a fraction of the way towards understanding how difficult it is to build a quantum computer, but it’s happening!

We’re currently in what’s called the NISQ (noisy intermediate scale quantum) computing stage. We’re still struggling with applying just enough energy to get a particle to polarize how we want it to, all while keeping the noise (heat, radiation) of reality out. That’s why you see quantum computers in those big cylinders as a chandelier. The cylinders are radiation shields and containers to cool everything down to near absolute zero (gotta keep that thermal noise out), and the chandelier is to keep the electronic noise of the control systems (old school electronics) away from the quantum processor.

My favourite quote from the PhDs I’ve talked to is, “a viable quantum computer is five years out. And if I’m wrong, it’s four years.” What does that mean for ICT types? Quantum computers don’t do linear. When you give them a problem, they leverage that state of being everywhere at once to produce massively parallel computing outcomes completely foreign to what we’re familiar with in our multi-core processors. Quantum algorithms are designed to blackbox the calculation, so observation doesn’t spoil quantum processes and then spit out answers as probabilities.

What does that mean for cybersecurity? Peter Shor came up with an elegant idea in the mid-90s that uses a Quantum Fourier Transformation to calculate the periodicity in prime number factoring. If you can calculate the period of two large, factored primes (there is a repeating pattern), you can reverse engineer those primes. In RSA encryption or anything else that uses factoring you could calculate the private key and tear apart the encrypted transport layer handshakes rendering secure internet traffic a thing of the past. From there you could imitate banks or governments or simply decrypt traffic without anyone knowing you’re there. You won’t see cybercriminals doing this because the tech’s too tough, but nation states will, though you won’t see them either because they will be quietly collecting all of that encrypted online data Imitation Game style. This process may already have begun with harvest now, decrypt later (HNDL).

There is much more to quantum technologies in cybersecurity than the encryption panic though. Recent research suggests that instead of running into limits with electron tunnelling in transistors, our new quantum 2.0 engineering could leverage this quantum effect to create Qtransistors magnitudes smaller and much faster than what we have now. Cybersecurity will have to integrate that technology as it evolves. Quantum communication is another challenge. NIST is making mathematical quantum resistant algorithms as I type this, but you could also leverage quantum entanglement itself to create quantum key encryption. China has an entire network of satellites testing these hack proof comms links now. There could be quantum locked portions of the internet in 15 years where high security traffic goes. Guess who is going to have to manage those secure networks.

If you’re in cybersecurity there is much more to quantum than panicking about encryption. Anyone in the field would be well served by digging in and researching this fascinating technological emergence. My colleague, Louise Turner, and I presented at the Atlantic Security Convention on this in April. Give our presentation a look. There are lots of links to fascinating resources. It’s time to free your mind, Neo.