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Defending Against Hackers of the Future

Cryptographers are working on ways to thwart quantum computers
Defending Against Hackers of the Future
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.