The term quantum uncertainty refers to the unique property of not being able to know the direction and speed of a particle at the same time. However if you were in Washington DC area this summer quantum uncertainty could also describe the confusion of defining the quantum threat to national security and countermeasures to contain it. We’ll take a quick look at the issues surrounding these little particles and explore why it’s creating such a big problem for policy makers.
The Quantum Threat:
Traditional computers process everything as a binary 1 or 0. A quantum computer also uses 1s and 0s but has the added ability to assign the value of 1 or 0 to the original 1 or 0. Moreover, those additionally 1 or 0s can have more 1 or 0s assigned to them. The number of extra values is referred to as qubits and China has announced they are working on a 100-qubit computer. With the right software, a 100-qubit computer could operate 100 million times faster than a traditional binary computer.
The exponential speed of quantum computers not only allows traditional code breaking algorithms to execute faster but also enables a new class of multi-dimensional math. Subsequently the entire library of US cryptographic functions such as RSA, DHE and ECC could be at risk as they were designed to protect against binary computer attacks. However at this time it is uncertain when China will get their 100-qubit computer working or the multi-dimensional software to run it. The irony here is that the bulk of this tech was conceived by Americans. This includes proof that the algorithms to rapidly factor large prime numbers would work (see Shor’s Algorithm)
To protect data from, mainly Chinese, quantum computing attacks a new field called quantum safe encryption has spun up. Paradoxically one of the leaders in quantum safe encryption is also China. In 2016 China launched a satellite that distributed entangled photons to create one-time use encryption keys. Entanglement is the property that if you split a photon into two there exists a weak field that causes any change on one to effect the other. Conceptually entanglement is similar to removing bubble gum from your shoe and end up with a long strand connecting both objects. Likewise entangled photons seem separate to human eyes but there’s sub-atomic gum connecting them that can be used to detect tampering or even teleport data.
The motivation of China to publicly announce their super secret quantum entanglement satellite is confusing beyond taunting US intelligence analysts, which they achieved with great success. Nevertheless China’s satellite test shows that they are investing in quantum safe, tamper resistant communications. While the US shouldn’t necessarily copy China’s satellite-based quantum key distribution (QKD) strategy as fiber optic and software overlay based QKD solutions are more practical, increasing funding for quantum countermeasures seems rational. This takes us to the policy challenge.
The Quantum Policy Challenge:
With most national security threats there’s an enemy that helps create focus. Unfortunately with intangible threats such as quantum computing, machine learning or material science there’s not an easily identifiable enemy against whom to create an action plan. In the case of machine learning it took so long to develop a policy framework and allocate funds that China became the global leader without any pushback from America. Many machine learning experts were in an odd position of waiting for DoD/IC funding while being offered upfront money from Chinese companies.
From a national security perspective investing in quantum safe encryption makes sense not just as a countermeasure to quantum computing attacks but existing Chinese cyber attacks. China has developed mastery in a wide array of data exfiltration techniques from tampering with communications equipment to exploiting software vulnerabilities. It is important to remember that China didn’t use a quantum computer to steal classified personnel data from OPM, just a stolen VPN password! Moving America to a stronger security architecture that integrates new quantum threats along with existing cyberattacks is critical since it’s unlikely that China will be giving up email phishing or credential theft any time soon. Thus watch out for that LinkedIn message inviting you to join that quantum computing group because of your history with the intelligence community.
When is comes to countering China’s quantum activities there’s no “EASY” button. The Made in China 2025 defines a range of strategic technologies that Beijing seeks dominance in which includes everything quantum. While Washington has announced quantum specific R&D funds they are not the 100-qubit scale to counter China. To match Made in China 2025 the US needs to restart large-scale strategic technology development and manufacturing initiatives that were shutdown after the Reagan Administration. However this time US policy makers will require the coordination and support of Western and Asian allies to counter China’s mass.
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