Quantum computing offers nearly limitless possibilities for advancements in industries from finance to energy to healthcare. These incredibly powerful computers can solve problems in minutes that would take even the biggest conventional supercomputers millennia.
While the benefits of this kind of computing capacity are tremendous, the risks are just as great if malicious actors get access to that same quantum capability. It is vital that the providers of all mission-critical networks prepare for that eventuality now.
What is quantum computing?
Conventional computers are based on the binary concept that electrical signals can be either on or off, which is traditionally expressed in 1s and 0s. From the earliest computers that ran programs off physical punch cards to today’s smartwatches, they have all used coding languages based on binary computations.
Quantum computers are based on the principles of quantum mechanics, which allow for many states between on and off. We are not even limited to one state at a time. This means these computers can not only perform their tasks much faster than conventional binary computers, but they can carry out multiple processes at once, increasing their capacity and speed exponentially.
This offers great opportunities for mission-critical industries. Mining, oil and gas companies can quickly and accurately determine the best places to drill, reducing costly and invasive exploratory excavations. Power utilities can better understand weather patterns and the impact of climate change and make usage predictions to prepare the grid in advance to avoid disruption. The aerospace industry can make major breakthroughs faster, being able to perform highly complex analyses at unprecedented speed. Defence organizations can use quantum sensing for deep-sea navigation, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Emergency services organisations can vastly improve preparedness due to more accurate advance notice of natural disasters. Research and Education Networks, dedicated to solving some of humanity’s biggest challenges from climate change to disease and world hunger, can make calculations that are impossible today and accelerate important breakthrough innovation.
Who is using quantum now?
Today’s quantum computers are highly specialised equipment that demand precise calibration and extreme cooling. That puts them out of reach for most organizations. The few quantum computers that have been built so far are owned by companies like IBM or large government entities. The capacity of today’s quantum computers is used for scientific and research purposes.
However, as demand for quantum computing increases in the private sector, more companies are likely to buy or rent capacity through an as-a-service model. Some innovators are also producing quantum annealers — smaller machines that are less powerful than full-scale quantum computers, but still offer much of the functionality companies are looking for.
Since 2021, Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Mitsubishi Chemical and ten other organizations have been sharing costs and using quantum computing to solve advanced problems, innovate materials for industrial applications and run autonomous vehicle scenarios as we prepare for the next generation of mobility. Mercedes-Benz is using quantum computing to accelerate battery performance for future electric vehicles.
Banks in the United States are running advanced financial computations. Researchers at Fraunhofer and the Cleveland Clinic are sequencing the human genome faster than ever before. Quantum has even been used to accelerate the study of COVID-19 treatments. And CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, is using quantum computing to analyse data from the Large Hadron Collider and accelerate our understanding of how the universe works.
Hacking at quantum speed
Today’s encryption mechanisms used to protect in-flight network data were developed to safeguard against an adversary using a conventional computer. Until now, these mechanisms were deemed strong enough to protect sensitive data because these computers cannot break the encryption within a practically useful timeframe.
It would take thousands of years to try every possible key combination. But with a quantum computer, a brute force attack can break most encryption ciphers, within minutes. Just as quantum computers can calculate at speed, access to the technology in the wrong hands means bad actors can also hack at quantum speed.
To launch such an attack requires a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC): a quantum computer large enough and equipped with the software required to break the asymmetric ciphers typically used in encryption today. The good news is that no such computer exists… yet. But it’s only a matter of time before a CRQC is developed. That moment is referred to as Q-Day — and while some experts believe its arrival to be most likely by 2030, based on recent developments many experts predict it could arrive sooner.
The potential for disaster when Q-Day comes is substantial. With standard encryption protections rendered useless, all networks will become vulnerable to attack. Malicious actors could cripple the world’s mission-critical networks like power grids and water utility systems with life-threatening consequences, in seconds. Financial markets could be tampered with, sending economies into turmoil. Vital medical systems and research could be impacted, causing irreparable damage to medications, vaccines and other life-saving treatments, setting advancements back to the drawing board.
But the risk does not start on Q-Day. Bad actors can “harvest” encrypted data now — even if they can’t do anything with it — and simply hold onto it until they can decrypt it with a CRQC. It is imperative that we start protecting mission-critical data against quantum hacking now.
Is it even possible to protect networks from quantum hacking?
Yes. Fortunately, quantum-safe networking technology exists right now.
A symmetric, centralized Classic Key Distribution Network (CKDN) is a way of sharing strong keys separately from encrypted data, making it harder for hackers to acquire both pieces required to access the data. This technology has been in use for several years and is an important element of quantum safety. But it is only effective for certain types of network connections and needs to be complemented by other tools and technologies.
To expand quantum security, it will take a multi-faceted approach. Quantum keys, utilising quantum mechanics as the key material source and transmitted through a quantum key distribution network (QKDN), are currently in development and will provide another layer of security.
Cryptographers are also working on post-quantum asymmetric ciphers, designed to withstand quantum attacks. A future quantum-safe ecosystem will include all three of these elements: CKDN, quantum keys and post-quantum ciphers, as well as other technologies that have not even been thought of yet. The goal is to always stay one step ahead.
The quantum threat cannot be ignored and outdated networking technologies or the mindset of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” just won’t fly. Modernized networking technologies with built-in quantum-safe mechanisms will help. Nokia has been at the forefront of research on quantum-safe optical networking, embedding CKDN into our solutions for years. We are currently the only network vendor to offer a quantum-safe solution for our customers — and we are continuing to work with partners around the world on QKD trials and other innovations to ensure that when Q-Day comes, your mission-critical networks are ready.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
James Watt is Vice President and General Manager for the Optical Networks Division at Nokia. Prior to this, James was the Vice President and General Manager for the Services Business Unit, IP/Optical Networks, at Nokia and its predecessor in Alcatel-Lucent, President of the Optics Business Line in Alcatel-Lucent and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the Alcatel-Lucent Carrier Product Group. Until 2008, James held the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Alcatel-Lucent’s IP Business Division and had previously held the role of Vice President Network Strategy for Alcatel. James joined Alcatel in 2000 as Chief Technology Officer of the Carrier Internetworking Division through the acquisition of Newbridge Networks, where he was Assistant Vice President, Access and Network Management Strategy. During his 15 years with Newbridge, James held a variety of positions within the research & development, product management and marketing organizations. James holds multiple patents, primarily in the areas of traffic management and Internet Protocol. He received a B.SC. in Electrical Engineering from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 1986.
Chris Johnson is Senior Vice President and Global Head of Enterprise at Nokia. A veteran sales and business leader, Chris focuses on delivering critical network solutions for the world’s most essential industries. He is a passionate champion of industrial digitalization for enterprises and government organizations, with a deep understanding of how innovative and intuitive digital technologies can bring resilience, productivity, efficiency and sustainability to any operation. Drawing on his experience defining business strategies, developing teams, executing initiatives and driving profitable growth, Chris helps Nokia Enterprise customers harness the exponential potential of networks to unlock new business models and build capacity for long-term success.