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Europol Analyzes the Threats and Opportunities of Quantum Computing

A new report from Europol notes recent work to advance quantum computing capabilities and examines the potential opportunities and threats the technology represents.

Quantum computing has been theorized for more than 40 years, and demonstrations of quantum computing have been around for nearly as long. But putting quantum computing into practical use remains in the realm of prognostication rather an application. However, tech companies are now scratching the surface and have begun investing in the technology.

One more factor to understand: quantum computing will not replace the computers (and computer chips) that power humanity’s devices and networks. It’s better to think of quantum computers as specialists: they will be very good at solving complex computational problems, the kind that traditional computers either could not solve or would take traditional computers a long time to solve.

One of the easiest ways to think about what could be a practical application of quantum computers is at the very heart of security and a major theme of Europol’s report: encryption. For encryption, quantum computing is a two-sided coin. On one side, in the hands of the good guys, quantum computing promises the development of much more advanced encryption capabilities—both securing information and breaking encryptions. The other side of that coin, however, is that bad guys will have the same capabilities.

And more to the point, it very much matters today, because what might be unbreakable encryption today could be broken quickly in the not-too-distant future if advances in quantum computing continue. Sure, future encryption techniques promise to keep pace. But bad actors are stealing massive amounts of data today, data that could still prove devastating two years from now, or even 10 years from now, when they have the power to decrypt it.

Here are the report’s key recommendations:

  • Observe quantum trends and monitor relevant developments to detect emerging threats.
  • Build up knowledge and start experimenting to benefit from these developments in the future.
  • Foster research and development projects engaging closely with scientific community to build a network of expertise.
  • Assess the impact of quantum technologies on fundamental rights to ensure law enforcement uses these new technologies while protecting fundamental rights.
  • Review your organization’s transition plans to ensure critical systems are protected in the post-quantum era.

“Quantum computing and quantum technologies have the potential to significantly impact law enforcement activities. These key emerging technologies can help us become even more effective in our fight against organized crime and terrorism to come up with innovative ways of doing so. Examples include enhanced analysis of large and complex datasets, improved forensic capabilities, as well as new ways of communicating securely,” Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle wrote in the report’s foreword. “But these technologies will also lead to significant threats, such as the potential to break the cryptography we use to keep our information safe. We need to anticipate these developments and mitigate the resulting risks.”