China’s Breakthrough

In a major breakthrough, Chinese scientists have published a paper proposing using quantum computing techniques to break modern-day encryption systems. 

Their technique involves using 372 qubits on an IBM quantum computer combined with Schnoor’s classical factoring algorithm for RSA 2048-bit numbers used in encryption systems. If the paper’s findings are accurate, then it could have serious implications for military and intelligence communication, financial transactions, and text messages around the world since existing cryptographic protocols would become vulnerable to attack. 

The paper is currently under peer review, and its validity has been questioned by experts such as Lawrence Gasman, president of Inside Quantum Technology, who believes that it should at least be taken seriously given the possible consequences of its findings. 

“It’s enormously important that some people in the West come to some real conclusions on this because if it’s true, it’s pretty disastrous,” he notes. 

The potential of this new technique from Chinese scientists highlights the issue of key encryptions becoming increasingly vulnerable in the face of advancing technology. 

“If you look at the roadmaps that the major quantum computer companies are putting out there, talking about getting to a machine of the power that the Chinese are talking about, frankly, I don’t know. But you know, this year, next year, very soon. And having said that, I tend to be a believer that there’s going to happen soon,” Gasman added. 

Andersen Cheng, CEO of Post-Quantum, shares similar concerns and cautions that even if this particular theory is not proven successful, there will eventually be other approaches that can crack key encryptions without visible signs or warnings until after have been executed. Therefore, governments must be proactive in developing more secure protocols, such as ones based on quantum technologies, before it is too late. 

“The general consensus in the community is that whilst these claims cannot be proven to work there is no definitive evidence that the Chinese algorithm cannot be successfully scaled up either. I share this skepticism, but we should still be worried as the probability of the algorithm working is non-zero and the impact is potentially catastrophic. Even if this algorithm doesn’t work, a sufficiently powerful quantum computer to run Shor’s algorithm“—a method of factoring the very large numbers used by RSA—” will one day be designed – it is purely an issue of engineering and scaling the current generation of quantum computers.”

IBM Quantum System ONE
Interior of an IBM Quantum computing system. (Source: IBM Research/Flickr)

Given the significance of these findings, major players in the tech industry are likely to take notice and begin working on solutions. In fact, many companies are already investing heavily in research related to quantum computing, with Google recently announcing their breakthrough achievement of “quantum supremacy,” where they achieved calculations vastly beyond what traditional computers can do. With advancements like this being made every day, it may only be a matter of time before cryptography becomes obsolete and secure data transfer becomes extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, without new protocols based on quantum technologies being adopted universally. 

While it remains to be seen whether or not China’s proposed method for breaking modern-day encryption will work out, what is certain is that current security measures need an upgrade if they are going to stand any chance against future breakthroughs involving quantum computing and other advanced technologies. As governments worldwide rely heavily on secure communication channels for sensitive information, there needs to be greater urgency toward finding solutions that can provide better protection against threats posed by sophisticated hacking techniques like those proposed by Chinese scientists in their recent paper.

Encryption in the US Military

The implications of such an achievement are far-reaching; if proven true, it could render current cryptographic protocols obsolete. With this, Gasman said, “it wouldn’t be too hard for nation states or organizations to quickly scale up their existing classical and/or quantum capabilities to try out this attack on real-world data,” which he emphasizes should not be dismissed lightly.

This highly complex Chinese breakthrough in cryptographic techniques could potentially be catastrophic for the security of military operations and intelligence-gathering. If quantum computing techniques can be applied to break modern encryption protocols effortlessly, then any sensitive communications or strategic plans held by US forces would become vulnerable to interception. Previous research suggests that such a scenario may arise as soon as 2030 when quantum computers with enough power become available.

If Chinese scientists can develop an effective system for circumventing existing encryption protocols, then it could have major ramifications for both US forces’ tactical and strategic security in their engagements across the world. Any highly sensitive information about troop movements or deployments transmitted between US command structures could be compromised and exposed to potential adversaries. This would allow them to gain an advantage in predicting what actions US forces may take in any given situation and obstructing their progress on the battlefield.

Aside from military security, there are also economic concerns that come with the possibility of a Chinese breakthrough in cryptographic techniques. The secure transmission of financial data over networks is heavily reliant on complex encryption algorithms, and any disruption in this area could have serious consequences for online transactions and banking services worldwide. With China potentially being able to undermine these protective measures, it could lead to a period of financial instability as organizations scramble to find new ways of protecting customer data.

Additionally, advances in quantum computing technology could also jeopardize the privacy of individuals’ electronic communications at home and abroad. Text messages sent via encrypted applications such as WhatsApp or iMessage would no longer be secure if quantum computing techniques were used. This lack of privacy could have far-reaching implications on personal relationships and digital conversations between people living on different continents due to potential surveillance from malicious actors who have access to powerful quantum computers.

Still, there are others who are skeptical about these Chinese claims. Texas at Austin Computer science professor Scott Aaronson summarized his response to this news, saying, “No. Just no.” 

“It seems to me that a miracle would be required for the approach here to yield any benefit at all, compared to just running the classical Schnorr’s algorithm on your laptop. And if the latter were able to break RSA, it would’ve already done so. All told, this is one of the most actively misleading quantum computing papers I’ve seen in 25 years, and I’ve seen…many.”

“Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it’s the Chinese and they, you know, they’re dissembling and it’s all about the rivalry with the West or the rivalry with the [United States]’,” he said.

So, if China succeeds in developing a system for bypassing current encryption protocols, it would represent a fundamental shift in how states think about their security infrastructures due to its significance within military operations and economic systems worldwide. It is, consequently, necessary that steps are taken now by governments across the globe to ensure they are prepared for such an eventuality by focusing on strengthening existing cryptographic algorithms. At the same time researching innovative methods which can protect against future developments within this field.

Meanwhile, the White House has already asked federal agencies to upgrade to quantum-safe encryption in their operations. 

“We need to be prepared for the first [Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer] to be a secret – it is very likely that when a sufficiently powerful computer is created we won’t immediately know as there won’t be anything like mile-high mushroom clouds on the front covers, instead, it will be like the cracking of Enigma – a silent but seismic shift,” said Cheng. 

It remains to be seen whether or not this paper will pass peer review and prove successful in practice, but regardless of its outcome, it serves as a warning about encryption’s vulnerability in today’s digital age. With advancements in computing power, there is always a possibility that encryption can become vulnerable; however, with continued research and development, we can remain confident that our encrypted data will stay safe from malicious actors who seek to exploit these vulnerabilities.