Can Encryption Keep Our Information Safe?
Imagine what would happen if we couldn’t encrypt our information. Nothing we do electronically would be safe. Hackers could run up our phone bills, buy things on our account or just simply steal all of our money and not bother with the rest.
Therefore, it is troubling – to say the least – that encryption we now consider “unbreakable” will be broken routinely in as little as a decade or so from now.
Although the details of encryption are mind-numbingly complex, the basic concept is accessible to anyone who has ever watched an Indiana Jones movie.
A Lost Temple
Imagine you are Indiana Jones, and you want to get inside a “Lost Temple.” (Of course it really isn’t lost any more, because you found it – after all, you are Indiana Jones.) Unfortunately, you need a key to get in.
Since this is an Indiana Jones movie, it is not as simple as finding the key, because it is broken into two pieces, which are in different places and guarded by big, tough, bad guys. If you are going to thwart the bad guys and open the Lost Temple, you will either have to outsmart the bad guys or overpower them.
A Code in Two Parts
Real world encryption is very similar to the Indiana Jones story, although instead of the key broken into two stone pieces, it’s broken into two prime numbers (in practice, one is a “public key” and one is a “private key”).
You will recall, from your high school math teacher, that a prime number is divisible only by one and itself (e.g. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11…). Therefore, if you multiply two prime numbers, the resulting number is divisible only by one, itself and the two prime numbers that you started with.
Suppose you want to make a secret code and you don’t want anybody else to know the whole thing (To make things intriguing, let’s say the code is needed to reveal your killer in the event that you don’t come back from a secret mission.)
You do it quite simply by creating a numerical code of say, “35” (Which is the product of two primes, 5 and 7). You can then give one part of the code, “5”to one friend and the other part of the code, “7” to another friend.
It is only by multiplying those numbers, not any others, that your secret code, and your killer, can be revealed.
That is basically how we keep the internet secure today. The only difference is that the numbers (the bad guys guarding the keys) are really, really, really BIG. They are so big that it would take today’s best supercomputer over 100 years to factor the number and crack the code. Presumably, the code will have changed by then.
Two Ways to Beat Encryption
As mentioned above, you (as Indiana Jones) have two ways to beat the “bad guys” if you are going to get both pieces of the key: You will either need to outsmart them or overpower them.
Riemann Hypothesis: Far beyond the powers of the math teacher who taught you about prime numbers is the Riemann Hypothesis.
It was developed by Bernhard Riemann about 150 years ago and is so complicated, that nobody can prove it (and given that it has something to do with the distribution of zeros in something called “Zeta functions,” that he himself developed, few can even understand what it is).
Anybody who can prove it will win a number of prizes, including the Millennium Prize worth $1 Million. As an ancillary benefit, the solution would also allow one to predict the distribution of prime numbers. To go back to the Indiana Jones analogy, the Rieman Hypothesis would provide a map showing exactly where the keys are.
Therefore, it is quite possible that anybody who actually did solve the Riemann Hypothesis would just skip the prize and steal all of our money. (This idea was the subject of an episode on the TV show NUMB3RS).
Quantum Computing: Most probably, Quantum computing will be developed in the next decade or so and will create computers that are exponentially more powerful than the ones we have today.
How this can be done has already been demonstrated through Shor’s Algorithm. Present day encryption will become breakable through what security experts call a “brute force” attack. It’s just a matter of time. In effect, it will allow Indiana Jones to just beat up the bad guys without having to outsmart them.
(For more on Quantum Computing, see: 3 Trends that will Shape the Digital World over the Next Decade).
Can Indiana Jones be Thwarted and our Information Kept Safe?
Most probably, new methods of encryption will be developed and critical information will be kept safe. I’m not an expert (my degree was actually in Philosophy), but I can see two possibilities. I would welcome any comments from people who know more.
Stronger Math: One obvious solution would be just to keep coming up with bigger numbers or to find a stronger mathematical method of encrypting. However, it seems to me that either would be, at best, a medium term solution.
Teleported Bandwidth: Another possibility, as amazing as it is outlandish, is to simply teleport information point to point, anywhere in the universe – instantly. Although teleportation is usually considered the stuff of science fiction, it has a basis in quantum theory and has been theoretically possible since the 1930’s.
The idea that information could simply be in one place and appear magically somewhere else was one of the reasons that Einstein was deeply skeptical of quantum theory. As he famously said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” (to which Niels Bohr famously quipped, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”)
In 1935, Einstein and proposed an experiment (called the EPR experiment), to disprove the possibility of what he called “spooky action at a distance.” He reasoned that if Quantum Theory were true, any action affecting one particle would then change another particle far away and indirectly teleportation would be possible. The notion horrified Einstein.
The phenomenon, called Quantum Entanglement, was demonstrated with particles of light at IBM laboratories in 1993 (at which point, Einstein was no longer around to scoff). Since then, whole atoms have been teleported, albeit over relatively short distances. While teleportation of objects is still a long way off, transfer of information is significantly easier.
Ironically, if teleportation does become possible and practical, it will be the same quantum computing technology that creates the encryption crises which will make the solution possible.
What does the Future Hold?
Progress goes both ways. So hopefully the technology that has the potential to breech computer security will also offer solutions that will protect our information. Apparently, as Paul Benjou reports on his site, Google is already at work on a super secure “Quantum Search.”
As computers become more powerful, the basic problem of breakable encryption will become more real. A solution will need to be found.