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Weekly Column

Quantum Dilemma: If the World Banking System is Compromised by Quantum Computing, Why Aren't We Worried?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Have you noticed that to the mass media, "news" generally means "bad news?" Read the paper, listen to the radio, watch TV and it is all car crashes, murders, and toxic waste spills. Good news is a kid being dragged from the rubble of an earthquake. This phenomenon has at its heart, I believe, two principles. The first says that people aren't really interested in good news, that bad news grabs our attention in a way good news never could. Frankly, I don't buy this. The second principle says we blame it all on the Associated Press. THIS I believe.

The Associated Press came into being in the 19th century as a way of leveraging that Internet of its own era, the telegraph. The AP was a news service — literally a "wire service," it was so tied to telegraphy — that supplied news from out of town to newspapers all over America and the world. As a business (the AP was paid only for those stories actually used by its member papers), the wire service had to maximize the popularity of its content. This was done in two very different fashions. First, the AP invented objectivity. The concept that the press was unbiased came from nothing so much as the AP's need to sell the same story to both Republican and Democratic newspapers. An objective story being the least objectionable was the easiest sell. This is, interestingly enough, the sole reason why papers today even claim objectivity. Certainly, there was no particular tradition of fairness in the news from Ben Franklin right into the 20th century.

The AP's other invention was sensation, and it came about for exactly the same reason. It was easier to sell stories about bad news than about good news. The more people who died or who were at risk of dying, the better. Bad news sells, which is why we cover so much bad news. It is as simple as that. Flipping this on its head means, of course, that local newspapers in the first half of the 19th century ought to have been both biased and boring. And son of a gun — that's exactly what they were.

Now we jump from the late 19th century straight to September 29th, when the Sunday Times of London published a short story explaining how a European commission had been established to develop a new type of data encryption technology. This was supposed to have been in response to an Israeli demonstration of the ability to crack 512-bit RSA data encryption in 12 microseconds using a handheld optical computer, a computer rather like the one James Bond used to crack that Japanese safe in "You Only Live Twice."

Think of the implications of such an event. RSA encryption is at the heart of the world financial system, and breaking RSA in such a short period of time would mean literally the end of money transfers as we know them. Overnight, we'd be back to carrying bags of cash, and the world economy would grind to a halt. Wow, what a story! But doesn't it deserve more than a few paragraphs in one newspaper, albeit one of the great newspapers of the world? In a word, the story was baloney.

The Sunday Times was had. There is no quantum electronic device using optical technology at the Weizmann Institute cracking RSA codes in 12 microseconds. Such a device is possible, but not yet in existence. If it could have been built within a Weizmann research budget, such a device would already be in operation wherever smart minds are for sale. Forget the Mafia, this sort of device would be in active use right now in Russia and that country would suddenly not be so poor. Things would be a lot more screwed-up in the world than they actually are.

"It is totally bogus," says Robert Harley, an Irish genius at Inria, the French research institute. Harley knows as much about this technology as anyone in the world. "There is no such device," Harley continued. "At best there may be a rough sketch of a design that it might be possible to build in a few decades. Even if a device did exist that could do the sieving in a fraction of a second, RSA 512 wouldn't fail completely in practice. There is still the "minor issue" of the final processing stage that does linear algebra on a binary matrix of several gigabytes. If you happen to have a Cray supercomputer at your disposal 24 hours per day, this last stage can be accomplished in a week."

In time, such devices will be built. Certainly RSA is violated all the time by our own government trying to do whatever it is they do at the National Security Agency and in the Office of Naval Reconnaissance, but it isn't happening in 12 microseconds — at least not yet. There is every reason to be working on stronger encryption or (my favorite) shorter transactions, but the new elliptical encryption functions coming along should handle that for awhile.

The greater concern has to be with the Sunday Times, itself. How could they print this rubbish, which made little scientific sense? Well, it's bad news for one, but it is also techno-news, which is suddenly a very big deal. Alas, the traditional media have neither caught on nor caught up to what is happening in technology. It's scary to know how many news organizations watch this space for guidance and, as we all know, I'm no genius.

Maybe this was in the minds of the folks at Jane's, the British publisher of defense information, who this week threw their cyber terrorism research at the nerds who read Slashdot, hoping for some inexpensive proofreading to keep Jane's from making their own big mistakes. This is an interesting idea but ultimately flawed, I think. The only way to write the news is to write the news. You have to do it the best that you can then take the heat, because the censorship of the nerderati is still censorship. That's why newspapers make corrections.

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