In ten years, quantum computers could be able to break into cell phones, emails, bank accounts, and Bitcoin wallets. Cryptography engineers are working on a new standard for quantum-safe encryption for the future.
Hundred years ago, the quantum revolution in physics ushered the start of new science, which has made possible modern technological advances, such as the transistor, laser, and atomic clock, GPS, medical imaging devices, and optofiber telecommunication.
Nowadays, we are near the beginning of the second quantum revolution. It will enable to manage the quantum mechanics, controlling quantum systems at an individual level. The anticipated breakthroughs in quantum computing could appear to be in the next hundred years as revolutionary as the first quantum revolution at the beginning of the 20th century.
That’s why governments and private companies, as Microsoft and Google, are working to make it real.
The challenge of quantum computing
But aside from useful advancements, quantum computing will also lead to challenges for information and communications security, for example, the сurrent encryption methods, which are vulnerable to attacks from quantum computers.
In the next 10 years, quantum computers could become powerful enough to break the cryptographic algorithms that protect emails, cell phones, bank accounts, and cryptocurrency wallets.
“If you had a quantum computer today, and you were a state sponsor – China, for example – most probably in about eight years, you could crack wallets on the blockchain,” said Fred Thiel, a former director of Utimaco, one of the largest cryptography companies in Europe, which has worked with Microsoft and Google on crypto-agility encryption. Now he is CEO of cryptocurrency mining specialist Marathon Digital Holdings.
“Every single financial institution, every login on your phone — it is all based on asymmetric cryptography, which is susceptible to hacking with a quantum computer,” Thiel added.
Now, most of the crypto protocols are based on asymmetric cryptography, in which peoples use a private and public key pair to access their email and Bitcoin wallets.
By the public-private key pair, user’ messages, encrypted with the private key, can be decrypted by anyone with the public key.
For cryptocurrencies, this method is called the Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm, and it ensures that Bitcoin can be spent only by the verified owner.
In the theory, someone using a quantum computer could reconstruct your private key and then rob your crypto wallet.
“If I was dealing in fear-mongering… I’d tell you that among the first types of digital signatures that will be broken by quantum computers are elliptic curves, as we use them today, for Bitcoin wallets,” said Thorsten Groetker, former Utimaco CTO and one of the top experts in quantum computing.
“But that would happen if we do nothing,” he added.
Pursuing crypto agility
Crypto experts aren’t worried much about the quantum hacking of Bitcoin for a couple of reasons.
“We would have plenty of forewarning if quantum computing was reaching the stage of maturity and sophistication at which it started to threaten our core cryptographic primitives,” pointed out Nic Carter, Castle Island Ventures founding partner. “It wouldn’t be something that happens overnight,” he said.
As well as quantum technology continues its advance, cybersecurity engineers around the world hurry to develop quantum-safe cryptography algorithms that cannot be broken by quantum computing.
“The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has been working on a new standard for encryption for the future that’s quantum-proof,” said Fred Thiel.
NIST is picking the best candidates now and standardizing them.
“It’s a technical problem, and there’s a technical solution for it. There are new and secure algorithms for digital signatures… You will have years of time to migrate your funds from one account to another,” added Thorsten Groetker.
He also expects the first standard post-quantum crypto protocol will appear by 2024, which still before the first quantum computer capable of break Bitcoin’s cryptosecurity.
In his words, a newly standardized quantum-safe cryptography will start the process of mass migration.
“Everyone who owns Bitcoin or Ethereum will transfer funds from the digital identity that is secured with the old type of key, to a new wallet, or new account, that’s secured with a new type of key, which is going to be secure,” Groetker said.
However, this security upgrade requires the user’s proactivity. In the case of fiat money accounts centralized by banks, this process may be easier than a decentralized network of individual crypto holders.
“Not everybody, regardless of how long it takes, will move their funds in time,” said Groetker. “There will be a number of wallets… that become increasingly insecure because they’re using weaker keys.”
But there are ways to deal with this kind of security upgrade. Cryptoexchanges could suspend accounts still using the old type of cryptography and give owners some other way to access it. The issue here would be the loss of anonymity when users go to reclaim their balance.
The second quantum revolution will present a slew of changes in cybersecurity and crypto tools. Needless to say, post-quantum technologies will play a crucial role in the future of data security and cryptocurrency trading.