America Races to Avert the 'Quantum Apocalypse'

The U.S. is racing to research cryptography designed to safeguard against future quantum computer attacks, known as "the quantum apocalypse," as cyber experts warn of catastrophic consequences for our online infrastructure.

Quantum computing uses the properties of quantum mechanics to perform computations far more complex than what modern supercomputers can achieve. While quantum computers may have the ability to solve a multitude of problems, including cracking encryption in a fraction of the time it would take a standard computer, experts say in the wrong hands, the machines may present an existential security threat to our way of life—by compromising information that we consider safe and protected.

This could mean the leaking of sensitive national security secrets, bank accounts being drained, and bad actors hacking into cellphones and email addresses.

On a larger scale, the U.S. power grid could come under attack, leaving millions without power, an industry expert told Newsweek.

"In the case of an attack by a future quantum computer...with its unprecedented power to decrypt existing encryption systems, the shutdown could be the most catastrophic disaster our country has ever experienced," Arthur Herman, Director at the Hudson Institute's Quantum Alliance Initiative, told Newsweek.

"It's been recognized for years that our power grid is highly vulnerable to cyber assault," said Herman. "What Texas experienced last winter with its deep-freeze power shut down, is only a small foretaste of the havoc that a prolonged and undetectable quantum computer attack could bring."

Industry experts aren't currently able to pinpoint when quantum computers powerful enough to threaten current security levels will exist. However, some have estimated a timeline of anywhere between five to 15 years.

In response, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has established a Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization program to define the safe algorithms resistant to quantum computers.

Speaking to Newsweek, Angela Wilkins, Executive Director, Ken Kennedy Institute, explained that this program has already announced a set of likely candidates.

"The newly published standards are expected to be complete and available in 2024, but the program will soon notify of the finalized algorithms. At this point, we will see a shift to implementing post-quantum solutions into the world," said Wilkins. "This is all good news for the future."

Dustin Moody, NIST's post-quantum cryptography project leader told Newsweek that the algorithms selected will be announced within the next month or two.

"NIST will then create new cryptographic standards so that users will be able to use these crypto-systems, and also issue guidance to help organizations migrate from current crypto algorithms to these new ones," he explained.

"Once we have these new algorithms adopted and used in all our applications, we will be protected against this threat," he added.

Moody said the NIST National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence has also partnered with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create a roadmap to help lead the transition to these algorithms, as well as provide guidance to organizations.

The White House also issued a memo on January 19 that sets out some requirements for national security systems to follow in regards to quantum-resistant cryptography.

Quantum Computing apocalypse
Stock image of elementary particles. A quantum shutdown "could be the most catastrophic disaster we've experienced," the Director of Hudson Institute's Quantum Alliance Initiative told Newsweek. Getty Images

Herman, whose team at Hudson Institute's Quantum Alliance Initiative are conducting a quantitative study designed to model the impact of a hypothetical future quantum cyberattack on the U.S. power grid, told Newsweek that a sense of urgency is needed from power companies and the federal government to adopt quantum-proof solutions.

"Using data supplied by the global econometrics firm Oxford Economics, our researchers at Hudson Institute's Quantum Alliance Initiative have determined that the long-term impact would amount to trillions of dollars," he said.

"Fortunately, we have time to implement these quantum-safe solutions before the advent of large-scale quantum computers—but not that much time," said Herman, noting that the think tank's research shows what the risks of doing nothing, or of putting off hard decisions about protecting the national grid from malicious attacks, really are serious.

Duncan Jones, head of cybersecurity at the Cambridge and Colorado-based company Quantinuum, told Newsweek that a worst-case scenario could result in the collapse of critical parts of our daily lives.

"Energy supplies, the internet infrastructure that we depend upon, our banking networks, it really could be cataclysmic if this suddenly happened sooner than we think it's going to happen."

He said, however, that he is optimistic that action is being taken now to "avoid that sort of catastrophe."

"I know, we're talking about doom and gloom. But I think we've got solutions coming for both of these problems, and these algorithms are coming shortly. I'm positive that we will get moving and we will be okay," said Jones.

Tony Uttley, president of Quantinuum, whose clients include Fujitsu and Axiom Space, meanwhile stressed the importance urgently putting plans in place and having conversations about the issue, which he described as a "profound threat."

"I think it's something that is going to have to be heard and repeated for the next several years, until people do understand that there is a threat that is big enough as a person, you want these institutions to be taking action," he said.

"This isn't something that is some futuristic, sci-fi kind of thing that I don't have to worry about for 20 years. It is something that needs to be thought about today," Uttley added.

Quantum apocalypse
Engineer Hannah Wagenknecht shows a wafer with photonic chips for quantum computing at the technology company Q.ant in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on September 14, 2021. The U.S. is racing to avert a "quantum apocalypse" by researching cryptography designed to safeguard against future quantum computer attacks. THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP/Getty Images