Fending off quantum computer cyberattacks

Mathematician creates a hack-proof online security system

In April, 2015, an IBM researcher leading the company’s effort to build a quantum computer wrote, “We’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” If and when a practical quantum computer becomes reality, it will both revolutionize digital technology and create a tool of phenomenal hacking power.

Internet security is no match for a quantum computer, which can quickly factor the large numbers used in computer encryption to protect email and online transactions. But using high-level number theory and cryptography, Washington State University mathematician Nathan Hamlin has reworked a famous old cipher called the knapsack code to create an online security system immune to hacking.

The knapsack problem, a theoretical puzzle dating back to the 19th Century, was considered as a potential encryption tool in the 1970s but was discarded after being broken. Hamlin made several corrections to the code and engineered new numbering systems for it, using alternate ways of representing numbers. In effect, he and his colleagues created new digital systems with much greater complexity than those used today.

The result is a new version of the code that can’t be broken by the usual cyber-attack methods and is a viable encryption alternative for quantum computing.