Emerging Technologies

Quantum computing could threaten cybersecurity measures. Here’s why – and how tech firms are responding

Quantum computer startup QuEra Computing's 256-qubit machine.

Tech companies are taking measures to protect against quantum cyber attacks. Image: REUTERS

Simon Torkington
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Quantum computing could easily decode today’s cybersecurity measures.
  • Tech companies are building new protections to withstand quantum cyber attacks.
  • The World Economic Forum has designed a governance and principles framework for quantum computers.

Emerging technologies are posing significant threats to cybersecurity protocols that protect our digital communications and sensitive data. At present, the main focus is on AI and its potential to facilitate ever more sophisticated scams and amplify misinformation and disinformation.

A less immediate but equally concerning risk comes from an advanced technology known as quantum computing. This technology is still largely in the development stage, but rapid advances in recent years could see commercially viable machines become available in the near future.

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What is quantum computing?

The first thing to know is that quantum computers are nothing like your laptop, desktop or smartphone – they work in a very different way. Classical computers are driven by digital processors that can perform complex calculations at high speed. According to IBM, quantum computers use specialized hardware and algorithms that take advantage of the principles of quantum mechanics.

Pay attention at the back, this is where it gets interesting – and a bit weird. Quantum mechanics, according to Britannica, is a branch of science that deals with the behaviour of light and matter and the properties of molecules, atoms, electrons, protons and neutrons and other unimaginably tiny particles.

By leveraging this subatomic behaviour, says IBM, quantum computers are able to create “multidimensional computational spaces” which essentially means they can conduct billions of novel calculations at the same time. This enables them to solve much bigger problems at a speed that is difficult to comprehend.

For example, in 2019, a quantum computer built by Google took just over three minutes to solve a computation that would have taken the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.

With that level of processing power available, it’s not difficult to see that quantum computers have the potential to bypass the encryption locks that currently protect the world’s communications and data.

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How are tech companies responding to quantum cybersecurity risks?

With no real timescale for the arrival of quantum computers, tech companies are keen to get out in front of the potential challenges to current cybersecurity systems, before they become reality.

In an announcement on 21 February, 2024, Apple unveiled what it called, “a groundbreaking post-quantum cryptographic protocol”. The company says its “PQ3” security system is designed to protect data sent over its iMessage platform. Apple claims its system offers protection against “even highly sophisticated quantum attacks”.

Apple says it’s introducing this post-quantum encryption now to protect against what is known as “harvest now, decrypt later” attacks, where cybercriminals collect masses of data with the intention of decrypting it when the technology becomes available.

Google is also developing post-quantum security protocols and has already adopted them to protect the company’s internal communication. Google says that introducing new cryptography systems is in itself risky, citing examples of protocols that were cracked by conventional computers.

Protecting the global economy

The responsibility to protect essential systems from bad actors using quantum computers will extend far beyond tech companies.

In 2022, the World Economic Forum, in partnership with Deloitte, produced a framework to help organizations plan an orderly transition to a quantum-secure economy.

The research states: “Developing a coherent approach for transitioning to a quantum-secure economy requires a broad, collaborative and critical approach from a diverse and global community of business and cybersecurity leaders”.

It also addresses the need for a set of governance principles and values as a way of “building trust in the technology and to pre-empt possible risks before the technology is commercialized”.

Quantum computing governance principles, themes and core values
A framework for governance principles and core values for the use of quantum computing. Image: World Economic Forum

These governance principles include commitments to cybersecurity, privacy and accountability.

Building on these principles, the Forum has now developed a toolkit designed to help organizations navigate the journey towards cybersecurity in an age of quantum computing. The toolkit urges leaders to factor in quantum-cyber protocols across corporate ecosystems and ensure there is collaboration in identifying risk and adopting protections.

Guiding principles to understand the quantum-secure transition
A toolkit to help organizations develop protocols for quantum-cybersecurity. Image: World Economic Forum

There is little doubt that quantum computing has the potential to help us solve some of the greatest challenges we face. But without adequate controls in place, it could also undermine the safety and security of data and communications beyond anything we have seen before.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Emerging TechnologiesCybersecurity
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