Seals often with unique emblems were used for hundreds of years to prove a document was both authentic and untampered. Before the advent of computing and telecommunications, if you wanted to send a secure message you would seal it with wax. When the recipient received it, if the seal was broken, they would know it had been intercepted. Whilst there was nothing they could do about it, they at least new the message was no longer secure.
Secure messaging remains fundamental even today. Not just for keeping communications private but for keeping our information secure. The need for secure messaging is not really about individual freedom and privacy, it is more about allowing business and commerce to operate. Without secure communications, you would not be able to pay for anything online. There would be no Amazon or Netflix or online banking.
Advancements in this area mean big things for industry. And now we are seeing technology creating one of the biggest secure messaging breakthroughs we have ever had.
Before diving into the future, let us understand how secure messaging works at a basic level. For example the way WhatsApp secures your messages. It uses one of the most common and most secure methods, which is to use end-to-end encryption. It works by using a public and private key combination.
These two keys are created together. Only the private key can decrypt messages that were encrypted using the public key. This is how encrypted messaging in WhatsApp and other services works. You will notice at the start of any WhatsApp chat, it will say “messages to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption”.
What that means is, both parties have shared their public keys with each other, and any messages sent will be encrypted with those keys. If someone intercepts the messages, or if they are stored on a server, and the server gets hacked, the messages will not make any sense.
The only way to decrypt them is with the corresponding private keys, which are only stored on your phone, and not on a server or network.
Crypto also use public and private keys the same principle as secure messaging. When you send crypto, you send it to someone’s “public address”. This is their public key. They then use their private key to get access to the crypto you’ve sent them.
So what happens if someone steals your private key?. The problem with this type of encryption is, what if someone has managed to copy your private key without you knowing. Now if they intercept your messages, they will be able to decrypt them with your private key. A private key is just a series of characters that can be copied and pasted like any other series of characters. Further, you have no way of knowing if someone has copied your private key or not.
This I where the new technology breakthrough, in the form of quantum physics computing can help. A wax seal for digital messaging. But quantum theory can be used to secure messages, as well as crack them.
Before delving into the wax seal of quantum computing, let us understand the basics of computing a little more.
Most computers use a binary system. That means their code, at its most basic level, is made up of strings of 1s and 0s. These essentially represent on or off. And using different combinations of these on and offs, you can represent any number. For example, the number 346 in binary is 0101011010. It’s not important that you know how that is worked out, but just that you know binary can be used to represent any number. At computing’s smallest level it comes down to binary.
So to understand the basics of quantum mechanics, at an object’s smallest level – the quantum level – it comes down to waves and particles. Is something a wave, or is it a particle?. In the world of quantum mechanics, it is both.
Light, which is made up of photons, can act as either a wave or as a mass of particles. Until someone observes it, it is both. Whilst that might sound confusing and odd, it has been proven many times over with the double slit experiment. The mere fact you observe it – changes its state. Until that observation it exists in both states. This is called superposition, and it is key. To make superposition seem more tangible, let us illustrate this with Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Imagine a cat in a large steel box. Inside the box with it is a glass vial of poison gas. Above the glass vial a hammer is suspended by a piece of string. That string will be severed when a random event happens – when a radioactive particle decays – and the cat will be killed by the poison gas.
The radioactive particle follows quantum laws. So it is either decayed or not decayed. But until you observe or measure it, both outcomes are equally valid. This means the cat – whose fate is tied to that particle – is both alive and dead at the same time. The cat is in superposition of being both alive and dead.Combine superposition and binary and you get quantum computing.
So, while normal computers can only represent 1 and 0, a quantum computer represents both at the same time, thanks to superposition.
This means it can approach problems in a different way. It doesn’t have to work on one problem after another. It can work on all problems at the same time. It is not tied to an either or. It has either or and an additional maybe.
For example, if a normal computer wanted to escape a maze, it would try one path at a time until it found the exit. A faster computer could run down these paths faster than a slower one and so find the way out faster. But a quantum computer could try all the possible paths at the same time and find the exit instantly.
So quantum computers can represent both 0 and 1 at the same time. But what does that mean practically? A bit is one bit of information. In a normal computer it’s a 0 or a 1. A two-bit computer can have four possible combinations of numbers: 00 01 10 11, but it can only represent one combination at any one time. A two-bit quantum computer can represent all four combinations at the same time, thanks to superposition. So a two-bit quantum computer is like having four normal two-bit computers running side by side. This means quantum computers can process exponentially faster. As you add more bits to a quantum computer, it speeds up at an exponential rate.
So, let’s say you have a normal 64-bit computer. That computer can represent 264 states. Which is: 18,446,744,073,709,600,000 possibilities. It can only represent each of these states one at a time.
A quantum computer can represent all of them at the same time. This is why they are so suited to breaking cryptography and why they can crack codes instantly.
So, for instance, a modern computer can cycle about two billion combinations per second. So in a passwordcracking scenario, it would take around 400 years to crack a 64-bit code. A 64-bit quantum computer could try all 264 combinations instantly and break a code a normal computer would essentially find impossible.
Thankfully, a quantum computer powerful enough to do this is not expected for another decade or so.
Currently, many people are working on making cryptography work differently so it is normal and quantum-proof.
It is not just about breaking codes. As you can imagine, quantum computing has far more possibilities than just codebreaking. It will allow people to write entirely different computer programs and run entirely different experiments and simulations.
Richard Feynman, a physicist famously said in 1981 “Nature is not classical, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you had better make it quantum mechanical, and it’s a wonderful problem, because it doesn’t look so easy.”
Quantum computing has the potential to change our understanding of the laws of nature and everything that follows on from that. In the end, it will bring us much more than codebreaking. It will change everything.
Quantum Matter changes its state when observed. So, if you are using quantum matter to send a message, if it is intercepted, it will change state. Just like the wax seal, the message will look different to how it should, if it has been opened. Just like the wax seal, this can only help you after the event. So it’s not really that much use. However, when combined with end-to-end encryption, it becomes unhackable. At least in theory.
So we can tell if our messages have been intercepted, but we can not do anything to stop them being intercepted before we find out. So how do we achieve truly secure messaging. The solution is to use the quantum messaging to share your private keys. Give both parties the same private key and share them with quantum messaging. If anyone else intercepts the keys, both parties will know, and they can just use a new key instead.
Here’s how Scientific American described it in 2013. A device in a satellite creates entangled photon pairs and simultaneously transmits one of each pair to two ground stations in beams of millions of photons, all in entangled quantum states. That means both stations should have the same key.
The two stations would compare them. If the transmissions were not intercepted or modified by an eavesdropper, the two keys should be identical. The sender can then send a conventionally encrypted message secure in the knowledge no one is listening.
But, if there is any alteration in the keys, which would happen if anyone intercepted the key message, Heisenberg’s theory would strike, and the photons would be altered. The two parties would know if there was an eavesdropper and either resend the keys or try another system. Several corporations and government research facilities around the world are working on similar satellite systems.
Things have moved on since 2013. What was just a theory in 2013 was proven to work in 2017. In 2017, Chinese scientists managed to prove that quantum messaging really does work. Nature magazine wrote last June 2017 –
Just months into its mission, the world’s first quantum-communications satellite has achieved one of its most ambitious goals. Researchers report in Science that, by beaming photons between the satellite and two distant ground stations, they have shown that particles can remain in a linked quantum state at a record-breaking distance of more than 1,200 kilometres. That phenomenon, known as quantum entanglement, could be used as the basis of a future secure quantum-communications network.
But one thing does stick out about this “impossible” to crack method of messaging. In a real-world situation, it would still be fairly easy to intercept. Don’t hack the message, hack the person sending it. As any system is only as strong as its weakest link. In this case, it is the people sending and receiving the messages. Those people could be compromised for far less money and with far less hassle than trying to break the laws of physics.
For purely machine-to-machine messaging, it would be unbreakable.
It may be complex, but quantum messaging is destined to play a big part in the future of communication, which is fundamental to every business on the planet. And that is before we even get into using quantum entanglement to communicate instantly, over any distance.
Whilst we transition technologica lly more toward this quantum computing world, we need to be aware of the increasing automation being used to pin point vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities can exist anywhere in the 7 layers of the security stack, the full stack. Vulnerabilities are introduced by people and often unintended error.
Therefore the only real solution from this point onward is to increasingly use automated and specifically robotic process automation tools to help give you the edge in identifying vulnerabilities and acting on them and even fixing them, all faster then a human has probably even identified the problem and doing so in parallel on a multi-tasking basis.
The age of computing power and automation for security defence is already here and should be embraced far more quickly than business seem to be exploring it.