In one word: Researchers at China’s Tsinghua University believe they have discovered a quantum algorithm capable of breaking today’s most complex encryption standards. The team claims that the algorithm can also be run using currently available quantum technologies. If true, the lifespan of current encryption could be drastically reduced to nothing in a few years.
Tsinghua University professor Long Guili and his team claim to have developed a new qubit-saving factorization algorithm that could spell trouble for cryptographic security standards in the not-too-distant future. The algorithm, called sublinear resource quantum integer factorization (SQIF), aims to optimize the quantum computation process by reducing the number of qubits needed to perform the codebreaking calculations. The work is based on an algorithm developed in 2013 by the German researcher Claus Schnorr.
What does that mean for someone who isn’t too familiar with quantum computing? If successful, the algorithm could reduce the chances of breaking today’s strongest encryption using currently available quantum technologies much sooner than originally expected.
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Created by the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2001, SHA-256 is a cryptographic hashing function that transforms data into a 256-character encrypted string. The encrypted output is unreadable unless a recipient has the proper key to decrypt the message.
These decryption keys are also made up of complex mathematical strings related to the SHA-256 hash, making an encrypted message extremely difficult to crack without the proper keys. For example, the time to crack an RSA-2048 bit encryption key using today’s most powerful traditional computing resources is estimated to be about 300 trillion years.
300 trillion sounds like a nice and safe number that no one should worry about. That is, at least until quantum computers are included in the equation. According to cryptography and quantum experts, a quantum computer of the right size could complete the same algorithm-breaking operation in just under eight hours. This is where Guili’s equation sets off alarm bells.
If the SQIF algorithm effectively scales up and reduces the quantum computing resources required to run the computations, then the wait for quantum technology to mature enough to run the computations could be reduced from a few decades to a few years.
IBM’s Osprey is currently the world’s largest quantum processor, weighing in at 433 qubits. The company’s quantum roadmap outlines plans to pursue larger processors ranging from 1,100 qubits in 2023 to more than 4,100 qubits in 2025. By comparison, the SQIF algorithm claims to reduce the required practical scale of a quantum computer to 372 qubits.
Currently, the Tsinghua team has not yet demonstrated the ability to break the 2048-bit encryption barrier. However, they have successfully demonstrated the feasibility of SQIF by cracking a 48-bit long encryption key with a small 10-qubit superconducting quantum computer. Although the breakthrough may not be cause for concern just yet, it is definitely a development that security and cryptography experts will continue to monitor.