It’s a dark, wet October, and, as my sisters and I try to spend more time together in preparation to the holidays, we find ourselves on a sofa looking back to the pictures of when we were younger, and in particular when we started using camera film again, back in 2024.
That was around the time when quantum computer technology had become robust enough, and affordable enough, to be accessible to malicious hackers on large scale. Almost from one day to the other, all traditional encryption was broken. They started first by attacking the biggest online stores - Amazon I believe it was called - and they were forced to take down the service, and every single e-commerce venue on the Internet followed, as nobody could trust buying anything anymore online. Then, almost anything that required some kind of secure transaction became unreliable. Dad used to say that the Internet suddenly looked like when he discovered it for the first time while at university in the 1990’s: a place for chatting, sci-fi fan-fiction and not much else.
He used to tell us the story of when – a few years before then, in October 2019 – some company called Google claimed to have achieved “quantum supremacy”. Apparently, they could build a computer called Sycamore that performed in about 3 minutes a series of calculations that the world’s fastest computer at that time would have taken 10,000 years to do instead. Yes, it was a paper published on Nature1 – serious stuff – but it wasn’t really clear if the results of their experiments were that relevant. However, things really started changing there, and how they changed!
Dad was not impressed, after all. One of his personal heroes – a sci-fi writer and activist called Cory Doctorow – used to say that computer security had not to be trusted anyway as the silver bullet to all confidentiality and privacy matters, as
“(…) ultimately all of us are vulnerable to what’s called rubber-hose cryptanalysis, right? Your cypher may be so strong that all the computers in the universe… Every hydrogen in the universe turn into a computer guessing what your password is or your pass-phrase is, would run out of universe before you ran out of pass-phrase combinations. But if someone can tie you to a chair and hit you with a rubber hose until you tell them the pass-phrase it doesn’t matter.” 2
Dad is not any longer with us, but my sisters and I still have his pictures on photographic paper, saved from the day the Cloud fell and all of its data was lost, or compromised, or shared irrevocably for anybody to use and abuse it. “Don’t worry about security” – he used to say – “rather, find people you can trust and invest in relationships. Those can be broken, too, but it’s up to you to protect them and preserve them, not to some stupid computer.”
- 1. https://ai.googleblog.com/2019/10/quantum-supremacy-using-programmable.html
- 2. Sean Carrol’s “Midscape” podcast, episode “Cory Doctorow on technology, monopoly, and the future of the Internet”, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/2019/10/21/69-cory-doctorow-on-technology-monopoly-and-the-future-of-the-internet/ at 1:04:25