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Quantum Computing: Closer Than We Think, More Dangerous Than We Know


The year was 1999 and the world was panicking. Computer programs designed to abbreviate four-digit years as two digits were poised to wreak havoc on computers and networks when the clock struck midnight on Y2K. Computers wouldn’t recognize “00” as “2000,” leading to software and hardware failures in key industries. This created international alarm and feverish preparations that began years before Y2K.

Now, another computer-based storm is coming, and this time the world isn’t yet prepared: quantum computing.

The Tech Behind Quantum Supremacy

Let’s take a step back and explore a high-level overview of what’s behind quantum computing. Standard computing operates on limited binary units called “bits.” A bit is either a 1 or a 0, on or off, true or false. Enter quantum computing, where a bit (called quantum bits, or qubits) can be a 0, a 1, or a 0 and a 1 at the same time. With one qubit, we have a matrix of four elements: {0,0}, {0,1}, {1,0}, or {1,1}. Two qubits mean a matrix of 16 elements; at three qubits we have 64—you get the picture. This is how quantum computers outperform today’s high-speed supercomputers. Soon, quantum computers will outperform classical computers at the same task—a phenomenon called “Quantum Supremacy.”

Several tech giants—Microsoft, Google, and IBM—have working quantum computers (capacity and accuracy is questionable, but they do exist), and many researchers believe Quantum Supremacy will happen within the next 8 years.

Knowledge Is Power, But at What Cost?

Quantum computing will bring unprecedented advances in medicine, science, and mathematics—knowledge currently out of reach. Many secrets of the universe are on the verge of discovery. But, are we ready for everything to be unlocked? Are we prepared to manage what comes with quantum computing’s limitless architecture?

One of the largest universal impacts is encryption. Current encryption methods are effective because of the time required to break the cryptography. Quantum computing will reduce that processing time by an order of magnitude, rendering current encryption obsolete. In fewer than 10 years, everything you are encrypting today will be at risk: databases, emails, SSL, and backup files.

Preparing for the Storm

To keep data safe, cryptography methods that are “quantum-safe” must be implemented. And while the Open Quantum Safe Project (https://openquantumsafe.org) has some promising projects in the works, those methods don’t exist yet.

Results from a recent SolarWinds survey, “IT Trends Report 2019: Skills for the Tech Pro of Tomorrow,” revealed that quantum computing is a bit out of reach for tech pros; 43% reported they don’t feel equipped to manage quantum computing with their current skill sets. What can they do today to start preparing? How can they promote “quantum readiness” in their organizations? Here are three tips for becoming quantum-safe.

  1. Calculate the amount of time necessary to deploy new encryption methods throughout your enterprise. If it takes a year to roll out such a change, then you’ll need to get started at least a year ahead of Quantum Supremacy happening. Since there’s no fixed date for when that will happen, now is the time to take inventory of everything that requires encryption, such as databases, files, and emails.
  2. Review the requirements around your data retention policies. If you’re required to retain data for 7 years, then you’ll need to apply new encryption methods on all that older data. This is also a good time to delete data older than your policy. Remember, you can’t leave data lying around—it will be discovered and decrypted. It’s best to assume that your data will be compromised and treat it accordingly.
  3. Be cognizant of the data you share across platforms that you don’t own. Some data (such as emails) may be stored on the servers they touch as they traverse the internet. There will always be things outside your control. With that, be cognizant of the data you make available—perhaps reconsider the data you share in places like private chat messages.

Double-Edged Swords

Quantum computing and Quantum Supremacy are double-edged swords: Encryption driven by quantum computers will be virtually unbreakable. However, don’t wait to start preparing for quantum cryptography. Build a readiness plan today. Data has value, no matter how old it is, and we must start thinking now about how to best protect that data before it’s too late. 


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