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Queensland University of Technology

Cryptographers Seek to Protect Today’s Internet From Cyber-Attacks Decades Away

Forget Terminators. Quantum computers in the future really could attack us in the past.

PETER DOCKRILL
25 AUG 2015
 

Tomorrow’s super-fast quantum computers present somewhat of a Catch 22. While they’ll be able to perform calculations and solve problems exponentially faster than today’s most advanced computers, they have the potential to use these powers for nefarious purposes in the future.

 

The key risk, according to an international team of researchers, is that these super-fast computers will be equally speedy when it comes to overriding security barriers, including decrypting the encryption mechanisms we use to protect today’s internet communications.

“Governments and the computing industry are working with scientists to try to build quantum computers. It’s a very significant scientific challenge, but quantum computers could be reality in a few decades,” one of the team, cryptographer Douglas Stebila from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia said in a statement. “Quantum computers will be able to solve complex scientific problems, like simulating chemical reactions, much faster than today’s most powerful supercomputers, but they’ll also be able to break much of the public key cryptography that’s used to protect Internet, mobile telephone, and other electronic communication.”

But wait a second. If these quantum computers are still decades away, why are they a threat to us now? The answer, according to Stebila, is that our current defences won’t be adequate in the future. Quantum computers won’t be able to physically travel back in time to attack us, but if they can breach today’s online defences in the future, it’s the next best thing. All the data we have now could be at risk then.

“Though quantum computers don’t exist yet, they could be used to retroactively decrypt past transmissions,” said Stebila. “That’s why it’s important that we start updating our communication infrastructure.”

It sounds like science fiction, but it makes perfect sense. All of our data online today – including personal data, banking details, and government and information – isn’t just going to disappear tomorrow. Unless we specifically take it offline, it will remain stored somewhere, and if the encryption mechanisms protecting that data remain at the same level as they are today, tomorrow’s quantum computers will make child’s play of them.

Which is why Stebila and his colleagues are looking at how to future-proof today’s Internet so it’s not at risk tomorrow. The researchers have been working on ways to strengthen the Transport Layer Security protocol currently used to encrypt data transmissions and protect Web users.

“The TLS Internet encryption protocol uses a variety of mathematical techniques to protect information, some of which would need to be updated to be resistant to quantum computers,” said Stebila. “We’ve developed a new quantum-proof version of TLS that incorporates a mathematical technique called the ‘ring learning with errors problem’, a fairly recent technique that mathematicians think has the potential to resist quantum attacks.”

The technique is detailed in a paper published at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in San Jose, California, and the researchers have made their work available as open source code on GitHub in the hope that further research and development will move the software forward.

“The speed of the new protocol is now something we will work on, but this is a big step forward, demonstrating the practicality of these new techniques,” said Stebila. “We’re optimistic this will provide a framework for developing effective ways of future-proofing our data in the world of quantum computers.”

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