Cracking encryption: Lessons from a homemade quantum emulator

A homemade quantum emulator - built as a PR exercise - may have valuable implications for the infosec industry.

Advancements in quantum computing are coming thick and fast. Last Autumn, Google's announcements in the space caused a great deal of discussion - some said it had achieved quantum supremacy, others argued it hadn't -  and the debate continues to rage as earlier this month Russian scientists claimed to break their algorithm.

This is often the way with quantum computing. Dispute centres on what really constitutes quantum, the value of the basic units of quantum information (qubits)  - these aren't necessarily made equal - and the relative merits of the different vendor breakthroughs. Yet the real question is: when will it arrive in a practical enough guise to crack RSA security? As when this eventually takes place, it will slice through security standards, expose all our data and effectively break the internet. This has perhaps never been more important than today, where the physical world is in lockdown, everything is online, and security threats are ramping up in tandem.  

Recently Dan Gleason, CTO of cybersecurity startup, Active Cypher [tagline: "quantum-resilient file security for cloud"], added his voice to the quantum noise by building a very simple password-cracking "quantum emulator". Called QUBY, it cost $600 in hardware parts, took a week a build and aimed to reveal just how close the cracking of conventional encryptions such as AES/RSA could be. 

A homemade quantum emulator that can break DES

QUBY in its current form is very basic and consists of just two graphic cards in a backpack. This gives it very limited capabilities, like defeating older encryptions standards, such as DES. And as this was only a demonstration, Gleason didn't build out the features like wifi-sniffers and RFID scanners, which would make it more useful to a cybercriminal.

Despite these limitations, however, this device does show what cybercriminals are capable of making - and expanding upon - at home. And Gleason wants to take the experiment further by testing new iterations, with larger cracking powers, to better demonstrate the threat to some of today's weaker encryption schemas. The aim is to come to a more precise date of "certain encryption sunsets," he explains.

Gleason believes quantum emulators, like QUBY, are going to become very important in the near future, because they run on classical computers, and therefore skip all the problems associated with quantum hardware. This allows software to better accommodate advancements in GPU technology and therefore deliver faster processing speeds in conjunction with AI.

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