Preparing for cyber attacks in the age of quantum computing

A little-known British company called Arqit is preparing companies and governments for what it sees as the next big threat to their cyber defenses quantum computers. Although, it is still a new area of ​​research. But some in the tech industry - including the likes of Google and Microsoft believe quantum computing is on course to become a reality in the next decade. This could be troubling news for enterprise cybersecurity.

Quantum computers are millions of times faster than classical computers and are capable of breaking into one of the most widely used encryption methods. The legacy encryption we use to keep our secrets secure is called a PKI, or public key infrastructure. It was invented in the seventies. PKI was originally designed to secure the connections of two computers. And it's not designed for a hyper-connected world where a billion devices around the world are communicating.

Arqit has clients such as BT, the British government, and the European Space Agency. Some of her team previously worked for the British intelligence agency GCHQ. The past month has seen a series of devastating ransomware attacks on organizations from Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the US, to JBS, the world's largest meatpacking company.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and several US government agencies were among those affected by the attack on the IT company SolarWinds. President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order aimed at ramping up America's cyber defenses.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing aims to apply the principles of quantum physics across computers. Computers today use ones and zeros to store information. But quantum computing relies on quantum bits or qubits. These qubits can consist of a set of ones and zeros at once, which is known as superposition. In addition, these qubits can also be linked together through a phenomenon called entanglement.

This means that quantum computers are much more powerful than today's machines. And able to solve complex mathematical operations faster. Quantum computers are designed to do some very specific operations much faster than conventional computers. This could be a problem for modern encryption standards, according to experts. When we use PKI cipher, we solve half of the difficult computational problem of factoring.

Arqit believes she has found a solution. Instead of relying on public-key cryptography, Arqit sends symmetric encryption keys long, random numbers over satellites, a so-called quantum key distribution. Virgin Orbit, which has invested in Arqit as part of the SPAC deal, plans to launch the satellites from Cornwall, England, by 2023.

What is the significance of that?

Some experts say it may be a while before quantum computers arrive in a way that could pose a threat to current cyber defenses. Arqit does not expect these computers to exist in any meaningful way for at least another 10 years. And if you accept the fact that quantum computers will be available within 10 years, anyone with the foresight to record important conversations now may be in a position to decode them when the devices appear.

Public key cryptography is everywhere in our digital world, from your bank card to the way you connect to the Internet, to your car key. The US Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is looking to update its encryption standards to include what's known as quantum post-encryption algorithms that can be secure against an attack from a quantum computer.

NIST is expected to decide on the new standards by the end of 2021. The challenge now is how companies need to prepare for the transition to the new standards. Lessons from the past prove that it is very slow and takes years and decades to switch from one algorithm to another. Businesses need to be ready now.

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