Defending Against Hackers of the Future

Cryptographers are working on ways to thwart quantum computers
Illustration by Shawn Hasto

Fully functioning quantum computers don’t exist yet, but a lot of really smart scientists think they soon will. A two-year-old startup’s 12 employees spend their days trying to figure out what to do if the bad guys get there first.

And now, a quick physics lesson. A guiding principle of quantum mechanics, the study of the universe’s subatomic building blocks, has been that matter and light, at their most basic levels, exist in multiple states at once. An electron in a hydrogen atom doesn’t have a well-defined position, but rather it exists as a fuzzy cloud around the proton, simultaneously existing everywhere in the cloud. Quantum computing applies that principle to bits (binary digits), the computer’s units of information, which are either in a state of 1 (on, alive) or 0 (off, dead). Your PC performs calculations using 1’s and 0’s, which can be combined to represent other numbers and letters, including those that make up passwords. A quantum computer uses quantum bits (qubits), which are simultaneously positioned as 1’s, 0’s, or a series of muddled states in between, making number crunching—and blasting through passwords—a whole lot easier. A quantum computer could perform some mind-numbingly complex calculations in no time at all. And that would mean that most cybersecurity as we know it could be as permeable as tissue paper.

Illustration by Shawn Hasto

Qubitekk, based 45 minutes north of San Diego, is trying to deal with that problem. Cybercriminals looking to unlock a PC login, bank account, or the occasional nuclear launch codes tend to quit when they run up against top-of-the-line encryption software or supersecure passwords. “All of our communications security is ultimately based on that,” says Duncan Earl, a Qubitekk co-founder.

He and his 11 co-workers, including a couple veterans of the U.S. Department of Energy’s cyberwarfare division, are trying to head off the threat of technology that hasn’t quite arrived yet. They keep their solution in a 15-by-20-foot laboratory, entered through a kitchen. It’s a two-pound metal box filled with a $5,000 crystal inside, essentially a fragment of a quantum computer. The device creates qubits by using a crystal to split a light beam into pairs of red photons, the smallest known amounts of light. The pairs move in tandem; if an intruding computer tries to read the pattern in the photons, it throws them out of sync, rendering the information unreadable.

The device’s first use may be as an educational tool. “If you’re a professor and you teach quantum mechanics, you can tell your students about it, and that’s pretty much it,” says Earl. “With our kit, you can show them.” Qubitekk has seen interest in the kits from what Earl calls “hard-core science types” at universities but hasn’t sold any. The company has received $2 million in funding from Ellis Energy Investments, a seed investor looking to protect the grid.

While the handful of quantum computers that now exist are mostly used for research, there’s plenty of interest in them. A Google system housed at NASA’s Ames Research Center uses quantum-computing equipment from Canadian company D-Wave Systems that generates about 512 qubits of processing power. Peter McMahon, a Stanford University researcher in quantum cryptography, says the magic number of qubits needed to achieve superfast calculations is between 10 million and 100 million, and that’s likely years or even decades away.

The funding flowing to academic research on quantum computing runs into the billions, from companies such as Microsoft, Google, and IBM, as well as governments including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Singapore, and China. “The Chinese are being very aggressive in this,” says Andrew Hammond, the head of business development for MagiQ Technologies, a Qubitekk competitor in Somerville, Mass.

MagiQ, a research and development lab founded in 1999, sells a system that can use quantum technology to transmit encryption keys—sophisticated passwords—mostly to government agencies, banks, and a few telecommunications companies. “It’s a niche application for the most paranoid customers,” says Hammond, whose clients include the U.S. Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He wouldn’t discuss what those customers are using his equipment for but says he wouldn’t be surprised to see full-fledged quantum computers in the next few years