Quantum computing may break the internet

We entrust our lives to the internet: bank accounts, medical records, dating profiles, family history — even our shopping lists and pet photos. Digital security systems use mathematical formulas to encrypt information and keep the snoops and crooks at bay. But quantum computing could bust through many online security protections.

Blame the weirdness of the quantum world. There, tiny particles do things that seem to defy logic, such as existing in two contradictory states at once.

Quantum computers have been used for scientific experiments for decades, but only recently have they become useful for practical purposes. Scientists and companies have been racing to build machines that can perform certain calculations much faster than existing computers.

Just one small problem: A quantum computer could soon crack the cryptography systems that protect the internet as we know it.

Cryptography currently relies on a simple assumption — that it’s virtually impossible to guess the “key” that will unlock our secrets. In the roughly 50 years since the invention of public-key encryption, that has been a safe bet, because today’s standard computers are limited in their ability to perform certain tasks, such as factoring large numbers.

Quantum computers, which use bits called qubits that can represent 0, 1 or both simultaneously, are not so limited. It is possible some scientists say likely that a quantum computer powerful enough to crack public-key cryptography could come online in the next 15 years.

Fortunately, scientists are on the case. In this issue, physics and senior writer Emily Conover explores the efforts already under way to develop new quantum-proof encryption methods. This includes new standards from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology due next year, which will help ensure that cybersecurity experts, businesses and government entities develop coordinated strategies.

Things are moving fast. Conover reports that last November, Google revealed that it is using post-quantum cryptography for internal communications. Others are looking ahead to a quantum internet that would be immune to hacking, even from quantum computers. A few quantum networks have already been built in the United States, Europe and Asia. Although the networks have a limited reach, Chinese banks are using quantum networks to transmit data.

The threat of cybercrime has become part of everyday life. Last week my bank texted to let me know that my credit card had been hacked. (Evidently the bank’s algorithms realized that I didn’t take a bus from Washington, D.C., to New York to get my nails done.) This was a minor inconvenience for me, but others are not so lucky. More than 1.1 million people in the United States reported identity theft in 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Businesses, governments and financial institutions suffer billions in losses each year due to cybercrime.

As we conduct even more of our lives online, we will all have a stake in ensuring that our private data is kept secret, even in the quantum realm.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Foogue Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.