Imagine a world with no cyber secrets

Once quantum computers reach their full potential, all that's encrypted will be unlocked -- and civilization as we know won't be the same

Some recent news in the realm of quantum cryptography signals that in the not-too-distant future, there will be far fewer secrets in the world. Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden managed to crack "uncrackable" quantum crypto -- and not with some theoretical attack or exploitation. Rather, they accomplished the feat using real tools against existing -- albeit primitive -- first-generation quantum computers.

Quantum computers are designed to perform incredibly complex math quickly. There are numerous applications for this technology: weather prediction and simulated product trials, for example. More important, they'd give Pixar the ability to render its next animated film in a day instead of months. Of course, where heavy computing power is involved, so too are the military and cryptographers (who often work for the military and other state interests).

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Existing public key cryptography works only because the two large prime numbers involved cannot be easily factored. When large primes can be easily factored, traditional public key encryption will no longer provide any protection. What's more, every previous public-key encrypted document will immediately be decryptable. When quantum computers progress to their full potential (which many observers say is in the next decade or two, at most), a lot of interesting scenarios will occur.

We have to assume that every government is storing all intercepted encrypted streams for later decryption (assuming they don't already have very fast quantum computers and aren't even now reading everything). So when large prime numbers become easily factorable, nearly every secret ever sent -- by our governments, dissents, enemies, allies, and so on -- becomes immediately readable. That includes our own encrypted documents.

What would the world look like if we could all immediately read each other's secrets? The irrational libertarian in me initially thinks this would be a great idea: peace, love, and happiness. The truth shall set you free. Heck, I'd love to know whether our government is hiding UFO secrets and whether Elvis is still in hiding.

But the truth is that complete openness is probably bad for society. If all encryption was immediately broken, it would essentially halt electronic commerce transactions. Every authentication and authorization scheme would immediately become broken. Wanna go back to paying your electric bill in cash and in person? Want to get your paycheck submitted all in cash on payday and then try to walk back to your car at night? You certainly couldn't check your bank account or stock portfolio online -- or buy a book for your e-reader.

All VPNs and protected wireless connections would immediately be accessible to everyone. All the opened wireless connections would close down when the hosts didn't achieve the gains they had expected. Starbucks won't give free Internet access to people not buying their coffee. I wouldn't want my neighbors taking up my cable modem bandwidth because I couldn't keep them from joining my wireless router.

Worse yet, I'm absolutely sure that I wouldn't want every terrorist cell in the world having access to information on how to build nuclear bomb briefcases. Heck, I'm not sure I'd want every secret I've told my kids to be revealed: "Hey, kids, I was young and I didn't inhale."

If the assumed were to become true, that quantum computing will lead to the immediate breakdown in everything in the world previously encrypted, we'd be in deep trouble.  It would mark the end of civilization as we know it. Anyone seen or read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"?

The real question is, how can we live with all the benefits of superfast computing without having to deal with all the potential problems? Fortunately, we haven't hit the performance thresholds yet and quantum cryptography solving is still work in progress.

This story, "Imagine a world with no cyber secrets," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in security and read more of Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog at InfoWorld.com.

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