America’s Enigma problem with China: The threat of quantum computing

America’s Enigma problem with China: The threat of quantum computing
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During World War II, Winston Churchill referred to Ultra — the information coming from the previously unbreakable German Enigma machines (among many other ciphers and systems including Lorenz) — as his “special intelligence”.

Bletchley Park was home to the central site for Allied codebreaking. If the Germans knew their communications were being intercepted, the war could have gone on for months and even years.

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My own conclusion,” said Sir Harry Hinsley, Bletchley Park Cryptanalyst and author of “British Intelligence in the Second World War”, “is that it shortened the war by not less than two years and probably by four years — that is the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Europe.”

Today, Bletchley Park is a tourist attraction.

Shopping Spree

On the other hand, China is spending $10 billion dollars to build a 4 million square foot facility and create the next Bletchley Park in Hefei, Anhui Province.

While it may not have the same ring or storied history yet, make no mistake. It puts in jeopardy our entire military and national ability to keep our secrets, well, secret. Today’s strongest encryption could be broken in a matter of seconds.

A complete explanation of quantum computing and encryption would be about as exciting as watching paint dry. It’s the difference between math (1’s and 0’s) and physics (particles of light called photons).

Or more simply, a drag race between the world’s fastest muscle car and the USS Enterprise going warp five. Not even close.

Quantum encryption will theoretically be unbreakable. But is anything truly unbreakable? And what makes quantum computing and encryption so troubling for our national security?

Unhackable Space Communications

In August 2016, China launched the first quantum satellite called Micius. The satellite conducted the first two-way video call using physics — not math — to secure the conversation in August 2017. The conversation was secured by a secret key generated by quantum entanglement.

This isn’t Skype on Steroids. This is much worse. It’s about physics. And really big and powerful computers. And lots of money.

There is no way to “eavesdrop” and listen in. No way to siphon off the message traffic by tapping the line. We will be completely blind. And with quantum encryption, our adversaries will absolutely know we’re trying to listen in.

There will be no such thing as a secure communication channel using our current encryption standard called AES — Advanced Encryption Standard — which forms the backbone of many of our secure messaging systems.

As President Xi Jinping moves to consolidate his power, it’s a harbinger of worse things to come. China is currently winning the race to dominate quantum computing and AI — artificial intelligence.

A New Arms Race

Does China have better scientists then the United States? No.

What they do have is money when they need it to solve problems. Right now. No messy Congressional oversight hearings. No public outcry about how taxpayer money is being spent. Unheard of in Communist China. (Or only heard once.)

What they also have is a sophisticated, long-range, long-term operation in the United States to steal our intellectual property. FBI Director Chris Wray, for instance, told the Senate Intelligence Committee China has aggressively placed operatives at universities to include professors, scientists and students.

The rise and number of Confucius Institutes is problematic. If you practice Falun Gong, sorry, you can’t be hired for a position.

This is not something for the private sector to solve. While quantum computing and encryption could stop hacking and identity theft — all big business benefits — there is no appetite to spend the billions of dollars it would take to achieve parity with the Chinese. This has to be solved by government.

Sound The Alarm

This calls for a modern-day Manhattan Project. All hands have to be on deck. Money has to be spent. Research has to be done. And access to our research and scientific facilities has to be denied to the Chinese, Russians, and other adversarial countries.

The advancements China has made have not as much to do with discovery as they do espionage and intellectual property theft. You can spend 20 years trying to invent something, or two years stealing all the data you need.

Stealing is cheaper, faster and doesn’t usually start wars.

As China closes the technology gap, and projects their growing influence around the world, the difference between remaining a superpower and being outmatched might come down to something you can’t even see. Photons.

Talk about shedding some light on the subject.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He’s currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government. Previously Morgan was a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.