The most recent WikiLeaks document dump regarding the CIA has made it clear that it’s getting harder and harder to keep secrets in the digital age.
If the CIA — or foreign intelligence services like Britain’s — aren’t eavesdropping on our conversations by surreptitiously turning on our Samsung TVs or hacking into our supposedly encrypted smart phones (and disguising themselves as Russian hackers while they’re doing it); if actual Russian and Chinese and North Korean hackers aren’t burrowing through one firewall after another in our corporate or government networks; then we have rogue insiders like Edward Snowden, former sergeant Manning, and very possibly whoever sent these 9,000 CIA documents to WikiLeaks, feeling free to expose mounds of classified documents to public scrutiny whenever they feel like it, on the rationale that it’s more ethical for you as a citizen of the world to endanger your nation’s security than to protect it as you are legally required to do.
No one can be very shocked that the CIA, or any other spy agency, has the capabilities the WikiLeaks documents allege that it does. What’s shocking is that we didn’t find out sooner. In an intelligence community that has become populated by rogue whistleblowers (or, as the Michael Flynn case suggests, rogue employees on a vendetta) and in which our most trusted and guarded information networks have become extremely porous, the mission motto of the 1992 Robert Redford movie Sneakers — “No More Secrets” — may be coming to pass before our eyes.
Fortunately, however, there is a silver lining to all these dark shadows.
That’s the advent of quantum cryptography, which uses quantum mechanics, instead of digital algorithms, to encrypt data. The data will then be forever immune from hackers or malware makers; the only users who will see it will be you and whoever you are sending it to or sharing it with. Big Brother’s data may finally be safe; but so will your data, from an unauthorized Big Brother.
How does quantum cryptography work? Since the late 1940s, standard digital computing has relied on the same binary linear sequence of the numbers 1 and 0 to encode, transmit, and then read messages via electricity. The process has gotten faster over the last 70 years, thanks to the transistor, the microchip, and using more and more conducive media through which to send the electrons. But ultimately the electronic digital process that ENIAC used to do computations for the Army during the Truman administration is still the same as the one that runs your smart phone — or the world’s biggest supercomputer.
Quantum computing turns to the electron’s smaller nuclear cousin, the quantum, to transmit message data. That eliminates the need for the traditional 0-1 linear sequence; instead a quantum bit can be both a zero and a one at the same time. That not only exponentially speeds up the transmission process; it means interrupting the linear process. The opening for traditional hacking techniques vanishes in an uncertain haze. Is a bit a zero or one? Only its programmer, and receiver, knows for sure.
A metaphor helps here. Think of the standard Internet server as the equivalent of a telephone landline; a hacker can tap it like an eavesdropper who taps the wire to listen in on a conversation.
With quantum cryptography, the intrusion of another listener snaps the cable. The sender and receiver know at once that the connection has been severed, and why. Hacking has become an exercise in futility; sender and receiver are able to communicate in confidence, knowing that their connection defies any intrusion from unwanted guests.
Quintessence Laboratories in Australia is just one of the companies involved in quantum cryptography that say that a commercially viable version of quantum cryptography will be available in 18 months or two years — creating a virtually unhackable cyber universe.
That’s the good news, that quantum cryptography can either be installed directly on devices, which revolutionizes the Internet of Things, or be accessible in the quantum cloud.
The bad news is the same quantum principles will also revolutionize computing itself in another decade or less. It will turn even our most advanced current systems into today’s equivalent of TVs with rabbit ears. (If you aren’t old enough to know what those are, you can ask your grandmother.) Quantum computing will rip through any and all conventional algorithms for encryption literally in less than a blink of an eye.
The challenge is that the instability of quanta that makes quantum cryptography so effective makes quantum computing — i.e., transforming the entire digital universe into a quantum-driven cyber sphere — daunting. Nonetheless, other countries are trying. The Chinese are already feverishly working to achieve the first big breakthrough in quantum computers; so are the Europeans.
This is the Next Big Thing in information technology. As with all technological revolutions, it has two sides — one positive, one negative. It will shut some doors we all want shut, and eventually will open others we’d all prefer shut. We can’t let current scandals distract us from preparing for the brave new world to come, and to keep us from taking a hard look before we do the Quantum Leap.