Bits and Pieces: Shattering Encryption with Quantum Computing
By: David Vauthier
Say one morning you wake up to find that your cat is locked in a box, both simultaneously alive & dead. Your first instinct might be to believe that this is impossible (and then perhaps you’d call an exorcist) and for everyday life, you’d be correct. However, on the microscopic scale, this happens all the time. Particles are constantly found in this state of ‘superposition1’. This is all thanks to the influence of quantum physics at the subatomic level. Indeed, the field can be quite confusing when compared to what we intuitively know based on quotidian experience. As Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once put it: “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics2.”
Before proceeding further, it is important to understand that subatomic particles–such as electrons–will have a property related to angular momentum called ‘spin’3. In the case of electrons, one of two spins is possible: spin up or spin down4. Now, say we have such a system with 2 electrons (let’s call them X & Y) isolated from outside factors. Before we measure the spin of each, there are 4 distinct possibilities:
1) Both have up spin: X = ↑ Y = ↑
2) X has up spin, Y has down spin: X = ↑ Y = ↓
3) X has down spin and Y has up spin: X = ↓ Y = ↑
4) Both have down spins: X = ↓ Y = ↓
This in and of itself is not that confusing, it’s just a regular probability of 4 possible states, right? Not so in quantum physics. Before measuring the states, it can be said that the system is actually in a superposition of all 4 states5. That is to say that the system is in a ‘mixture’ of all 4 possible states at once! Adding to this confusion, there are certain situations6 where particle pairs can enter in a special type of superposition called entanglement. In these scenarios, no matter the distance between the pair, measuring the spin of 1 particle will always reveal that of the other! So, for example, simply by measuring X’s spin to be ‘up’, we could immediately know that Y’s spin would be ‘down’!
Ok, but what is the point of all this, I hear you ask. Quantum physics is confusing and unintuitive, there is nothing new revealed there. But the real importance of these phenomena come when they are applied in the ‘real world’ like in quantum computing.
Classical computing, on which every aspect of modern society is based is really quite simple at the base of it. Every piece of information is encoded in binary; 1’s and 0’s (called ‘bits’) which are eventually translated to legible information for the users. As you can imagine, this limits the possible amount of information that can be encoded in any sequence of bits. To compute more information you need more and more bits which slows down the speed of any computer7.
Modern encryption takes advantage of this property to protect information–from your private text messages to sensitive government intelligence. It scrambles the data which can only be unlocked by finding a specific ‘key’ (that only the sender and receiver have) which would take millennia for any classical computer to calculate. It is on this basic assumption–that it is near impossible for most individuals to perform the necessary calculations to obtain this key–that every aspect of online privacy is based on8.
Quantum computing shatters this assumption. By taking advantage of effects like superposition and entanglement, these computers are not limited to the binary encoding and long computation times of classical computing. The quantum bits (qubits) hold exponentially more information, and calculations on such a computer can be undertaken simultaneously. What this means is that any calculation that would have taken a traditional computer thousands of years can be a matter of only hours for a quantum computer9.
While this has the terrific potential to improve research in countless fields such as mathematics, drug research, climatology, and urban design10. the political ramifications may be even more significant. In theory, quantum computers have the potential to disrupt global financial markets, run circles around the most advanced forms of encryption, and intercept any secret government intelligence one desires11. As the Texan chairman of the congressional subcommittee on information technology Will Hurd put it: “The consequences of mastering quantum computing, while not as visual or visceral as a mushroom cloud, are no less significant than those faced by the scientists who lit up the New Mexico sky with the detonation at the Trinity test site 72 years ago”. In the same way that atomic weaponry symbolized power throughout the Cold War, quantum capability is likely to define hegemony in today’s increasingly digital, interconnected global economy12.”
So does this mark the end of privacy in the modern age? Will we simply have to get used to the concept that nobody, not even governments, can keep information safe? Not yet at least. The rise of quantum computing also coincides with more robust methods of encrypting data through similar quantal techniques13, so there should in theory still be trusted methods of protecting one’s data. Furthermore, there is still a long way to go to reach the quantum supremacy just described, so governments, banks, technology companies and the like still have some time to modernize and adapt14.
What is for certain is that with these quantum leaps in technology, we have entered a new age of information. Neither inherently good nor bad, quantum computers are just another powerful tool at the disposal of humanity. What we choose to do with it next is left to be seen.
1. “Superposition.” Quantumatlas.umd.edu, Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center, quantumatlas.umd.edu/entry/superposition.
2. Ball, Philip. “Will We Ever... Understand Quantum Theory?” BBC Future, BBC, 24 Jan. 2013, www.bbc.com/future/article/20130124-will-we-ever-get-quantum-theory.
3. “What Exactly Is the 'Spin' of Subatomic Particles Such as Electrons and Protons? Does It Have Any Physical Significance, Analogous to the Spin of a Planet?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 21 Oct. 1999, www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-exactly-is-the-spin/.
4. Ling, Samuel J., et al. “Electron Spin.” University Physics Volume 3, OpenStax, 1 Sept. 2016, opentextbc.ca/universityphysicsv3openstax/chapter/electron-spin/.
5. G, Parth. Quantum Entanglement Explained for Beginners | Physics Concepts Made Easy. YouTube, 22 Oct. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WSWz1H3mJg.
6. Wilkinson, Jens. “Producing Spin-Entangled Electrons.” RIKEN, 1 July 2015, www.riken.jp/en/news_pubs/research_news/pr/2015/20150701_2/index.html.
7. Naushad, Raoof. “History of Classical Computing.” Medium, 17 Feb. 2020, medium.com/faun/history-of-classical-computing-575ad4e76355. Accessed 21 Nov. 2020.
8. Johansen, Alison. “Norton.” Norton.com, 24 June 2020, us.norton.com/internetsecurity-privacy-what-is-encryption.html.
9. Beall, Abigail, and Matt Reynolds. “What Are Quantum Computers and How Do They Work? WIRED Explains.” Wired.co.uk, WIRED UK, 9 Aug. 2016, www.wired.co.uk/article/quantum-computing-explained.
10. Jackson, Mark. “6 Things Quantum Computers Will Be Incredibly Useful For.” Singularity Hub, 25 June 2017, singularityhub.com/2017/06/25/6-things-quantum-computers-will-be-incredibly-useful-for/.
11. Princeton University CITP, and Princeton University CITP. “Implications of Quantum Computing for Encryption Policy.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019, carnegieendowment.org/2019/04/25/implications-of-quantum-computing-for-encryption-policy pub-78985.
12. Arampatzis, Anastasios. “Political Security Implications of Quantum Computing | Venafi.” Www.Venafi.com, 19 Dec. 2019, www.venafi.com/blog/2020-predictions-geopolitical-implications-quantum-computers-hijacking -machines. Accessed 21 Nov. 2020.
13. Korolov, Maria Korolov and, and Doug Drinkwater. “What Is Quantum Cryptography? It's No Silver Bullet, but Could Improve Security.” CSO Online, CSO, 12 Mar. 2019,
14. Greenemeier, Larry. “How Close Are We--Really--to Building a Quantum Computer?” Scientific American, 30 May 2018, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-close-are-we-really-to-building-a-quantum-computer/.
*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.
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