While driving back from a client today I heard a brief show on NPR about quantum computers. Of course they got some things hopelessly wrong (such as implying that present computers would use a brute force technique to do a reverse search on a telephone directory), but they did briefly mention the extreme interest cryptographers have in quantum computing. The possiblilty is that quantum computers could eliminate any ability to encrypt anything by being able to solve for all (or a very large number) possibiliies at once.
At the present time, quantum computers are pretty useless. That's of course as far as you and I know, though if "you" happen to be someone working under a mountain somewhere for some agency that doesn't exist as far as I know, you might know differently. But even if that is the case, functional quantum computers are not readily available off the shelf. Encryption is safe for the moment.
That may change. At some indefinite point in the future, anybody with desire may be able to actually take advantage of the promised technology. There may be some "if, ands and buts" in there, but the point I am getting to is that if at some time X one or more of the superpowers can use quantum computing to defeat encryption, there will be a point X plus Y where Joe Six Pack can do exactly the same thing.
What then? Actually, the problem starts a bit before the technology reaches Joe; it starts when any old organization with enough cash can buy the nascent systems that are no longer exclusive to secret labs. The cost almost doesn't matter: do you think organized crime would care what it costs? Or any country that has competitive or more sinister aims upon another?
No more encryption. No more secrets, or at least no more secrets protected in that manner. You might say (and history might suggest your being right) that the question is entirely like wondering what happens to suits of armor once bullets are invented. The answer is that eventually Kevlar comes along, and in the meantime you deal with the problem in other ways. You stop wearing armor. You don't give up the things that caused you to wear it, but you give it up.
But is it that simple? Or would this be one of those fundamental changes like agriculture that affects much more than can be foreseen at the time? Agriculture begat civilization; would the demise of encryption be equally world changing? My suspicion is that it could be, and that someday historians may look back on these times the same way we look at other great historical beginnings. Encryption is heavily entwined with conflict, from business and political maneuvering to outright war. It is also incredibly important to commerce. It's hard to imagine just how we could function without it. Like making armor useless, it throws us backwards a bit, at least momentarily. We would have to find new methods for so many things.. in a way, I almost hope that it's all hype, that there never will be any way to make this sort of thing practical. But that's probably foolish. People who know much more than I do seem to think the problems can be solved, and then the cat is out of the bag. Or maybe in this case it's more like Schrodinger's cat, forever encased, both dead and alive, and mewing out answers we could never have had before.
Old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. If this comes to be, our times certainly will be interesting.
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More Articles by Tony Lawrence © 2009-11-07 Tony Lawrence
The psychological profiling [of a programmer] is mostly the ability to shift levels of abstraction, from low level to high level. To see something in the small and to see something in the large. (Donald Knuth)