How cyber warfare has taken a quantum leap

These days, one of the most effective forms of warfare is cyber warfare. In fact, since it gives countries the ability to strike at their enemies by just clicking a few buttons, it’s far more effective than traditional types of combat. And with the advent of quantum computing, it could soon be far more damaging than it is already.

What are the dangers of quantum computers?

Quantum computers use the properties of quantum physics to create powerful machines – machines that are far more powerful than even the most state-of-the-art traditional computer being used today. They’re able to tackle problems and crunch numbers faster, meaning that they could break complicated codes and encryption keys in seconds. What this means is that if these computers became widely available, malicious actors would be able to break into any network and access any data as though there was no cyber security in place at all.

For now, quantum computers are only being used by scientists and researchers, but it’s only a matter of time before they fall into the wrong hands. Last year, the head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Richard Moore, warned, “Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage.” He went on to warn that countries like Russia, China, and Iran are the ones most likely to exploit technology like quantum computers.

Russia’s history of cyber warfare

Russia has a long history of cyber attacks – last year, for example, US and UK agencies blamed the devastating SolarWinds attack on state-sponsored Russian hackers. Back in 2015, Russian malware called BlackEnergy was behind a power cut in Ukraine. This year, before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, it was revealed that Russian hackers had infiltrated Ukrainian military, energy and other critical infrastructure networks. All of this was done without the help of quantum computers – if Russia was able to weaponise this kind of technology, then they’d be able to wreak havoc wherever they wanted. Countries around the world are already worried about the country’s cyber capabilities – in the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre has warned people to boost their defences.

Whoever manages to achieve quantum supremacy first will have the upper hand, which is why there’s a cyber arms race going on at the moment. Governments all over the world are scrambling to create ever more powerful quantum computers. In 2020, Russia announced that it had invested £598 million ($790 million) in quantum technology, while this year, it announced it had set up the National Quantum Laboratory.

Is the UK helping Russia?

Setting up research labs isn’t the only way that Russia is getting into quantum computing, though. There are companies all over the world looking into quantum encryption methods – ways of keeping data safe from quantum computer attacks such as QKD (quantum key distribution) and RNG (random number generation). One of these companies is ID Quantique. It’s based in Switzerland, and founded by Swiss scientists, and at first glance doesn’t have connections to Russia. If you were to look closer, however, you’d realise that two of the company’s first commercial investors were the venture capital firms Runa Capital and Phystech Ventures – firms which are based in Russia and founded by Russians, which means the country is behind a significant portion of ID Quantique’s funding.

They’re not the only ones helping with ID Quantique’s research, though. The firm is currently involved with the European Union’s OpenQKD project, which receives funding from the EU Horizon grant programme. It’s one of 38 companies to receive £12.5 million (€15 million) to look into quantum communication infrastructure. Even though the UK has left the EU, it’s still funding the project – a project designed to bolster cyber defences all over Europe.

If this project involves a company with such clear links to Russia, though, is this such a good idea? The UK government clearly hasn’t done its due diligence. By giving money to ID Quantique, it’s indirectly helping Russia to develop its quantum technology, and potentially giving it a stronger foothold in the cybersecurity landscape – something it shouldn’t be doing in peacetime, let alone when Russia’s in the middle of an all-out war.

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