John Prisco was invited to share more about quantum key distribution at this year’s TEDx Midatlantic. This year’s theme was Unbreakable, exploring the promising ideas that can help us turn adversity into strength, and help make our civic systems and shared culture become UNBREAKABLE.
When we were considering this theme of unbreakable encryption, one of the topics that came up was encryption. Because we rely on encryption in every aspect of our lives at this point, we thought what do we know about unbreakable encryption. Turns out it’s a kind of a complicated topic because the kinds of encryption we’re using today there will be computers that will break those ciphers pretty soon. There are solutions needed and its complicated to think about so we thought to get somebody who is actually building some of these technologies. With us today is John Prisco, and he has his own company in this space called Quantum Xchange and he is going to tell us how this works.
Good afternoon everyone and thanks for listening. Today I’m going to cover a few topics. The first is going to be the history of modern cryptography. Then I’m going to try to explain the theory behind quantum physics and how this all pertains to your personal privacy and national security, in under ten minutes.
So, any of us who have had the experience of transacting business on the internet, we know that if we are buying something on Amazon or sending a secure email that we have a little bit of help to keep our privacy private. And that little bit of help, our cryptographic algorithms, scramble everything we say and try to protect us from bad actors who are trying to read our credit cards and basically pry into our privacy.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad actors and they are very skilled at actually breaking some of our cryptography. Therefore, we are in a position where a lot of our information, and especially for the nation, our national secrets are at stake. I’ve mentioned how many hackers there are and how good they’re getting. Can you image 14.7 billion records have been stolen since 2013? And there are some really big ones out there: Yahoo 3 billion, Marriott half a billion, and if you can read the fine print, for Marriott, it was happening to them for over four years. My personal favorite is the Office of Personnel Management. This is personal to me and my wife because our records were stolen. At least the government gave us a two year subscription to LifeLock. I don’t know how that’s working, but so far we haven’t lost our identity.
I promised to talk about the history of modern cryptography. It’s really fascinating because it is not that old. Really only about 43 years old and these fellows are the sort of the fathers of modern cryptography. So in 1976, on your right is Whitfield Diffie, and Marty Hellman in the middle, and graduate student Ralph Merkel came up with public key cryptography and it’s a huge deal. This is what everything uses on the internet. So, it was recognized as being a huge deal a couple years ago, when in 2015 Whit Diffie and Marty Hellman won the Touring award, which is sort of the Nobel Prize for computer science because they don’t give out a Nobel Prize for computer science. So, in any event, what they did has worked since 1976 and it works today and now it’s being threatened.
Let’s talk briefly about what cryptography is. In order to transfer something secretly I need three elements. I need data to go from point A to point B; I need a cryptographic algorithm that’s going to scramble everything and make it impossible for somebody to read; and then I need something very special called a cryptographic key. It’s that key that unlocks the mystery when you get your information transmitted to the destination These keys work great right from the time that these fellows invented it but what’s been happening over the years is that these keys are getting cracked by some very talented nefarious actors.
Let me tell you what the key is; it’s a big number. It’s usually too big prime numbers that are multiplied together and they make an even bigger number, but not prime. In order to break the key, you have to factor the number into its primes and then you can use that to decipher the secret information. Over the years we started with smaller numbers like fifty six digits wide and they were broken pretty easily and hacked, the NSA broke them immediately. But every time one of these keys is broken, we double the size so that we say, well you know maybe it’ll be harder for them to break a bigger number. This has been going on now for 40 years and the last number that was broken was 768 digits wide. It’s a huge number and at the time they were saying it would take a computer 3 million years to figure it out . Actually, it figured it out in 3 years, so so much for that estimate. Today we use numbers that are even more incredibly big – 2048 digits wide and we’ve decided that it would take our current computers, the best ones we have, a billion billion years to break that. I have nothing to worry about.
Well let’s fast forward to today. What you’re looking at is really an amazing device; it’s a quantum computer. It’s IBM’s quantum computer and this one came out in January of 2017. Now, it’s not powerful enough yet to solve that billion billion year problem but it’s going to be and when it is that billion billion year problem can be solved by this machine in one minute. So you can see we have a huge national risk here that our entire encryption system could be destroyed.
Let me tell you a little bit about a quantum computer, but not too much. The reason why they are so effective and they’re so much better than what we have now is because they work on the principles of quantum physics. One of the biggest principles is the fact that if you have a one and a zero in a regular computer that’s all you have is a 1-0 but the quantum computer the bits can be ones and zeros and they can be ones and zeros at the same time and that enables the quantum computer to do is process information trillions of times faster than our conventional computers and classical computers that we use today
I mentioned that IBM came out with this in 2017 and then they began improving it and then Google got into the mix and today these computers now are about a tenfold increase in capacity in just a little over a year. When you think about Moore’s Law, which says every two years of classical computer double to its capacity. this is frighteningly fast. Well not so coincidentally, in November of 2017 just 10 months after this was announced, NIST called the entire world and said we would like people to start submitting new algorithms for a new standard in encryption. They said we want these algorithms to be quantum resistant, not quantum proof but quantum resistant. So, in November of 2017 they got 82 algorithms sent to them from all over the world and since then they’ve eliminated all but 26 of them. This means it’s going to be pretty hard to get a really good quantum resistant algorithm and they estimate about five years before they do standardized a new encryption standard.
You know you might say, well how long is it going to be before it good quantum computer can factor that billion billion year number? The answer to that is nobody really knows, some people say three to five years, some say 10. It’s almost an immaterial point because what’s happening is bad actors are stealing our data now and they steal our conventional key now and then they store it. This is called a harvesting attack. I think my records from OPM probably just being stored somewhere at least I pray that you are but when computer is available then they can track the key and read that data.
The problem is here and it is here now. So, what can we do in the face of this incredible machine how can we stop it? Turns out, there is a way to stop it by creating a new special key made out of light, so we are going to fight quantum with quantum. What we’re doing is we’re building these cryptographic keys out of photons and why is that important? Well, there’s a special law of physics that says if you observe group of photons just the act of observing them destroys their quantum state. Just think of that, the key crossing from point A to point B somebody tries to intercept it and the key changes all of its numbers and now the key is useless. I have a little video to show you how that works.
We can send millions of individual photons down a fiber. This is called Quantum key Distribution and we encode each photon with a one or zero. We transmit to the far side where the data is going and when these quantum keys get to that destination, they are unique and unbreakable. A great segway into the topic, now what happened if somebody tries to observe? Well, the ones and zeros switch and they change all around and the key becomes useless. It can’t be used to decrypt the data and in fact, it’s tamper-evident so we know that somebody tampered with it we don’t send the data. This is a terrific solution that’s ready today and one that we can use to protect our privacy and national security.
We’re unfortunately once again in a race to see who reaches quantum supremacy. As you can see by the relative amounts of dollars that have been invested, the United States is playing catch-up. in fact, the 1.2 billion if United States just procured for the Quantum Initiative Act was just signed into law in late December, so we haven’t even deployed any of that will.
The Chinese are out spending us and they’re out thinking us, because they have incredible strategy. Our strategy is to build quantum computers Yay! IBM, Yay! Google and Yay! NIST for getting us a new cryptographic algorithms that are quantum resistant. China’s doing one thing more. China is also doing quantum key distribution and they’re doing it in a big way. That’s a picture of a satellite that they put in space and they’re now bouncing quantum keys off that satellite and transmitting them thousands of miles around the world. They’ve got a really good strategy and we got a big fight on our hands.
You know a picture like this, I saw in the 60s when the Soviets put Sputnik up and that kind of spurred us on to take the lead in the space race. I’m hoping that seeing this picture will help us take the lead in the quantum Supremacy race. Actually, this is a race that the United States cannot afford to come in second. Thank you very much appreciate your time.