SALT LAKE CITY — Utah 2nd District Congressman Chris Stewart spoke to the Sutherland Institute earlier this month on the subject of national security. There, he named his two biggest fears — the first, the ability of our enemies to take down the US electric grid through a cyber attack.
The second was quantum computing. Stewart’s concern about quantum computing is directly related to encryption, national security, and a potential national security breach.
“We’re in an existential race with quantum computing,” Rep. Stewart said. “It’s winner takes all. There is no second place with quantum computing. The nation that masters it first will be able to stop every other nation from pursuing the research on it.”
“We should be concerned,” Professor and Chair of the Computer Science Department at Utah Valley University George Rudolph said, “but I believe the way he couches this as ‘there is no second place’ is a little bit extreme.
“He may be trying to galvanize people to understand his concerns, and he may be pushing for funding and organizations to seriously pursue the research,” Rudolph said.
What is quantum computing?
The US Department of Energy’s Office of Science defines quantum computing this way:
Quantum computers are computers that consist of quantum bits, or “qubits,” that play a similar role to the bits in today’s digital computers. The laws of quantum mechanics allow qubits to encode exponentially more information than bits. By manipulating information stored in these qubits, scientists can quickly produce high-quality solutions to difficult problems. This means quantum computing may revolutionize our ability to solve problems that are hard to address with even the largest supercomputers. Scientists have demonstrated these quantum speedups in several applications, including database searches. The race is now on to find others.
In other words, a quantum computer has the potential to quickly solve problems and come up with solutions that otherwise might take years to complete.
For example, Shor’s algorithm demonstrates the power of a quantum computer by rapidly factoring the integers for large prime numbers.
“The relationship to security is that most of today’s cutting edge encryption algorithms rely on the fact that it’s really, really hard for even the fastest supercomputers to factor large prime numbers,” Rudolph said.
How safe would encryption be?
All of the security algorithms that protect the United States power grid as well as data contained in such programs as Venmo – rely on the fact that certain kinds of computations are extremely difficult, if not impossible. Quantum computing makes those computations very possible, even easy.
Figuring out your very strong password would take a nanosecond Rudolph said. And cryptocurrencies could be wiped out by quantum computing, an inevitability those companies are likely preparing for, but not talking about publicly, according to Rudolph.
Is it time to fear a “quantum apocalypse?”
“In the short term, we don’t need to worry about this problem,” said Rudolph. “In the long term, it’s out there. People are working on it.
“There are secrets and technology that are vulnerable, but like we say in the cyber security business, secrets and technology have a shelf life.”