The arrival of powerful quantum computers could undermine encryption, the “foundation of internet security” within the next 8 years. It is axiomatic that enterprises pay attention to the exotic technology.

Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of GCHQ, argued that Britain must prepare for the day when almost all internet encryption will be rendered useless thanks to a computing advance that may also lead to a mass release of secret correspondence across the globe.

Leading scientists have also warned that the advance will not only mean that the way we encode data will have to change but that vast caches of western encrypted data from past decades will suddenly be accessible by foreign governments. While messages between embassies and the Foreign Office often use different proprietary systems, a significant proportion of previously encrypted commercial secrets, private correspondence and government data may become readable.

“The whole of the cryptographic world has been worrying about this and how to make things safe,” Hannigan argued.

“It’s our job to make sure we are starting to plan to protect government secrets, machines and power grids now against the arrival of serious quantum computing. That could be ten to twenty years off. We just don’t know.”

Most internet security works on the basis of “public key cryptography”, which involves encrypting data using a large number that is itself the multiple of two very large prime numbers. The method was invented at GCHQ.

Threats To Cyber Security

Leading technology labs, governments and universities are rushing to develop quantum computers. Over the last three years, venture capital investors have placed $147 million with quantum computing start-ups; governments globally have provided $2.2 billion in support to researchers. The race for scalable general quantum computers is on and this increases the cyber threat.

Mr Hannigan talked about the fallout from one of the most serious breaches of recent years, the intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden. The files may have resulted in deaths. He said terrorists who were being tracked before the disclosures suddenly vanished. “Who knows what they went on to do?”

Mr Hannigan claimed that GCHQ was working on techniques to hit hackers over the internet. These powers would be important as the spread of internet-enabled devices meant that more of our society was becoming exposed.

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GCHQ

Reference: The Times, BBC