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A full-fledged quantum computer is still years, if not decades, away. But developers have long thought that its killer app will be decoding encrypted messages on the internet and elsewhere, be they state secrets or personal information. That prospect has galvanized cryptographers. At a meeting this week in Santa Barbara, California, they will discuss nearly two dozen schemes for encrypting messages in ways that even quantum computers cannot crack.
The workshop is part of a push by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to set standards for so-called postquantum cryptography. The multiyear effort may sound premature and a bit paranoid, as such a quantum computer may never exist. But cryptographers say now is the time to prepare, especially because anybody could record sensitive communications now and decipher them later. “If you wait until we have a quantum computer it’s too late,” says Tanja Lange, a cryptographer at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Every day that we don’t have postquantum cryptography is a day the data is leaked.”
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Hundreds of billions of dollars of e-commerce relies on potentially vulnerable schemes called public key cryptography. They are based on “trap door” calculations, so called because they are much easier to work forward than backward. A receiver, Alice, provides a numerical public key and a recipe that a sender, Bob, uses to scramble a message. An eavesdropper, Eve, cannot easily reverse Bob’s computation to discover the message. However, Alice has also generated a secret private key, mathematically related to the public one, that helps her unscramble the message through computations like Bob’s.
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For example, in a popular public key scheme called RSA, Bob scrambles a numerical message by multiplying it by itself a number of times that Alice...
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