When Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code during the Second World War, neither the United Kingdom nor the United States immediately published a paper announcing the achievement. Instead, they kept it to themselves so they could keep reading Nazi messages encrypted using Engima machines. Last month, in contrast, Chinese academics from government-run laboratories and research organizations published a paper claiming to have developed a new mathematical strategy to break RSA encryption, today’s standard.
If the Chinese government can crack RSA encryption, then they can break into every U.S. government and private sector system, seeing and exfiltrating anything and everything, achieving true information dominance over Washington and its allies and partners.
There are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the paper’s claims, however, and even more reasons to question why Chinese researchers would show their hand if they really cracked our codes.
Some day, computer scientists will break RSA encryption. But before that happens, they will need to have the right tools. Based on the current understanding of math, breaking RSA encryption will require quantum computers, which harness the principles of quantum physics to accelerate problem-solving exponentially.
The race to quantum computing is well underway. In November, IBM launched the largest quantum computer yet, the Osprey. This milestone “brings us a step closer” to “the coming era of quantum-centric supercomputing,” IBM’s director of research said. But the Osprey cannot yet solve the complex mathematical problems facing those who want to break RSA encryption. Beijing, however, claims it can break RSA encryption with a hybrid approach combining classical computing and quantum computing using a smaller quantum computer.
If China really broke RSA encryption, they wouldn’t tell us. Perhaps China is trying to get a seat at the table, seeking invitations to collaborate with quantum research facilities overseas. These invitations may have dried up after Washington enacted a series of policies blocking quantum technology sharing with China because of quantum’s military applications. If invitations were the goal, however, the Chinese paper’s authors may have shot themselves in the foot by revealing they are lagging years behind foreign competitors. The approach the researchers take in their paper is similar to one described in another paper published five years ago by an American quantum software company, explains Kevin Kane, the CEO of American Binary, a cybersecurity company focused on security in the quantum era.
Beijing has previously published what appears to be cutting-edge research in efforts to garner praise, only to have that research debunked later. This seems to be the case yet again. Numerous quantum and computer science experts have already raised doubts about the new paper’s findings. The mathematical strategy the paper explores is not scalable to very large numbers, explains Kane. Nevertheless, he warns if the paper is truthful, it indicates China is further ahead than we thought and is making important progress. University of Austin computer science professor Scott Aaronson, meanwhile, pans the Chinese academics for misleading claims that their approach is faster than classical computing when in fact it appears not to be.
Given the scale of the threat, however, dismissing the Chinese claims as mere boasting would be dangerous. For a moment, set aside the question of whether or not the math works. Why would China sacrifice significant strategic advantage for academic bragging rights?
Perhaps the Chinese government is trying to convince the world that it has cracked RSA encryption to build a kind of deterrence. If one repeats false information often enough, others may start believing it, especially if they are scared to begin with. The quantum paper could be part of a series of efforts to convince the United States that China has obtained unsurpassable technological dominance. Beijing may be betting that, facing a stronger adversary, American decisionmakers will acquiesce to China’s will on various global issues.
Discerning Beijing’s motivations may be challenging, but one should recall Sun Tzu’s words: “Those skilled in warfare move the enemy and are not moved by the enemy.” Beijing’s strategic planners are no doubt watching to see how America and its allies respond—how much handwringing Washington engages in, how much reactive behavior, and how much resignation. The Chinese academics may have revealed their hand, but Washington should not. Part of America’s assessment of its next actions should be an evaluation of what lessons China might learn from how the U.S. government reacts.
Regardless of why the paper was published, the day is rapidly approaching when quantum computers will break today’s encryption. America and its allies must reach this milestone first while also raising security and encryption standards to protect against an adversary with advanced, encryption-breaking capabilities. Both of these steps require government and private investment in quantum research and development and in cultivating the skilled workforce needed to conduct this research and realize solutions.
Annie Fixler is the director of CCTI and an FDD research fellow. Follow Annie on Twitter @afixler.
Image: Flickr/IBM Research.