Software Development

How can quantum be used in cybersecurity? Here’s what the future of data protection might look like

Eric Hay, director of field engineering at Bethesda's Quantum Xchange, breaks down what happens when the technical fields merge — and where DC fits.

Quantum foam.

(Image via Flickr user Alex Sukontsev)

With power moves like an IPO from College Park, Maryland’s IonQ, the quantum industry in the DMV is one to keep an eye on.

Quantum computing is the practice of using tiny particle bits, or qubits, to solve problems on a computer that allows multiple calculations to be performed at once. (Yeah, it took us a while to get it, too. Read our explainer here.) As it turns out, it’s an appealing tactic in the world of cyber. Eric Hay, the director of field engineering at Bethesda, Maryland quantum company Quantum Xchange, thinks there’s huge potential for quantum in data protection and more.

And as of right now, Hay said, the current quantum industry in DC is just the beginning.

“It’s a little bit of wild, wild west,” he told Technical.ly. “It reminds me of the early days of the internet; a lot of promises were made not all of them were kept, big players coming on the market, all those sorts of things have happened here.”

Quantum is a new (in the grand scheme of things) and buzzworthy technology, and covers a lot of different aspects within the tech sphere. In the not-too-distant future, though, Hay thinks it will be presenting a pretty serious threat to current encryption methods. Experts are starting to ask questions about its potential.

The way quantum will be used to secure against other quantum computers is twofold. One, Hay said, is using quantum random number generators, or QRNGs, which generate numbers that are so random that even a quantum computer would struggle to break using an algorithm.

“It’s like a coin flip, you can’t predict it and so that’s safer,” he said. “So we’re seeing that being used to prevent people from guessing keys.”

Quantum Xchange’s Eric Hay. (Courtesy photo)

The other, called quantum key distribution, involves key technology, or the strings of ones and zeros used in most common encryption types. Where current data sharing involves encrypting data and sending it to the other party (or, as Hay described “basically, I throw ping-pong balls [of data] at you”), which doesn’t make it to the other party if it’s stolen, quantum technology can derive a key from two locations at the same time. That means a key is never technically transmitted, and therefore, it can’t be stolen.

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Still, quantum is not without its shortcomings. As far as Hay and his team can tell, there aren’t any existing quantum computers that could break the encryption keys from Quantum Xchange and other quantum developers. But they’re going to be built at some point.

At present, that brings up a few different scenarios that quantum teams are trying to address. One is a practice known as “store now, decrypt later,” where cyber predators could copy the data now, wait a few years for the right tech to be developed, and decrypt it in a few years.

Another problem, Hay said, is that if someone does have a quantum computer that could break the keys, it’s currently very difficult to stop or prevent an attack. So additional safeguards still need to be figured out and built.

“It’s not really detectable that anybody is [attacking],” he said. “You wouldn’t know why things started blowing up, you would just know that they did.”

But after working the kinks out, quantum still has huge potential in the DMV, although it won’t necessarily look like a quantum department in every company. Quantum computers are too large and expensive for anyone to manage on their own, Hay said, so likely it’ll look like entities using cloud applications to access quantum computing capabilities, similar to the days of mainframe computers.  But he sees all kinds of uses beyond cybersecurity for the technology, like traffic flow and water treatment management.

And with its proximity to the government military and a number of entities working on safety and security, Hay sees DC as the perfect place to solve the missing piece of quantum.

“This is a good place for quantum because it’s a very specialized skill set,” he said. “Communities build technologies and when you have a quantum community growing here, that’s only going to continue to grow and attract more people.”

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