By Jonathon Jeckell
Many quantum computing researchers think we are less than a year, possibly months away from achieving quantum supremacy, including John Martinis who leads Google’s efforts. Quantum supremacy is the point where quantum computers far outstrip the capabilities of classical supercomputers. However, few quantum-computing researchers like the term because quantum computers work fundamentally differently from classical computers. Quantum computers use exploit superposition and other quantum effects, including entanglement, to rapidly solve problems intractable using classical computers. While there are still hurdles with keeping the computers stable, reliable, and from error creeping in, there has been enormous progress in the field. Both Google and Microsoft are seeding general purpose computing languages using familiar programming interfaces to developers to learn how to program quantum computers before they arrive. The developers don’t need to be experts in how quantum computers work; they simply use the rules of the programming language and can run their programs in a simulated quantum-computing environment.
The race to develop working quantum computers has high stakes and could have serious negative consequences as well as positive uses, like developing new pharmaceuticals. We’ve known since 1994, when Shorr’s algorithm was proposed, that quantum computers will probably break all asymmetric encryption. That is the basis for nearly all online financial transactions and purchases, as well as the encryption used by private citizens and for some government communications. Obviously governments are keen on getting the edge on rival governments by tapping their communications, so naturally governments are heavily investing in quantum computing research.
However, some governments have a demonstrated track record of spying and controlling their own citizenry and many will harass critics, regardless of their nationality or location. The Chinese government has pursued their émigrés around the world to warn them against speaking out about things happening in China with threats against their families. Likewise, Russian proxies harass anyone critical of the Russian government or its goals, and have killed or attempted to kill several dissidents. These are not the only two nation-states or even organization to attack or pressure citizens of other countries.
Quantum computers could cause major shifts of power among nations when some can decrypt message traffic earlier than others, but also decrypt decades of stored data as well. Presumably governments are working on or already using encryption resistant to breaking by quantum computers. But changing the architecture for private financial transactions and communications will be much harder because most of this relies upon the very asymmetrical encryption quantum computers can attack, and implementing other forms of encryption would be logistically difficult if not technologically. Moreover, even nations with strong civil liberties and privacy protections are not keen on allowing citizens to possess strong encryption. Law enforcement agencies have been lobbying to require backdoors in encryption available to the public to make law enforcement and counter-terrorism easier.
But a public lacking the protection of strong encryption is vulnerable to foreign influence and attack. Governments may dominate quantum computing early on, but large organizations and corporations are leading the development. Quantum computers will be commercialized and it appears that they will be affordable with moderate investments in the near term. So modestly funded organizations, not just governments, could afford to use quantum computers to capture private communications and perhaps even tamper with them en-route, as well as online purchases, banking information, etc. Government contractors also send and store sensitive information that won’t be protected by the forms of encryption available to governments, but still contain information sensitive enough to damage US interests. Government officials and employees will be vulnerable to having compromising information revealed, or even DeepFaked false information generated and inserted into their communications to compromise them.
Whether or not any of this actually happens is secondary to whether people believe it will happen. Quantum computing research can be easily be carried out in secret, and many entities have strong incentives to keep their projects quiet to preserve the advantage of using them while their prey is unaware as long as possible. Transactions over the internet and other functions conducted billions of times a day with strangers we have never met hinge on impersonal trust built on reliable institutions. If that trust erodes, including trust in those institutions and the government to protect their transactions, the economy could enter a tailspin and as well as other forms of social unrest.
So thinking ahead about quantum computing and how it will impact privacy and the sanctity of private transactions and communications (financial and otherwise) will be as important to consider as the possibility of having all previous government classified communications decrypted.