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Chinese researchers are making claims that, if true, would threaten national security

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The threat of hackers piercing through the digital protections that guard state secrets - that's the sort of thing that keeps national security experts up at night. So it was news when Chinese researchers recently claimed that they could break a common encryption algorithm with an emerging technology called quantum computing. But some encryption experts are skeptical.

NPR's Jenna McLaughlin is here to explain. Hey, Jenna.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly are these Chinese researchers claiming?

MCLAUGHLIN: So there's a brand-new paper that came out on an academic site called arXiv. The authors say that they found a method where today's very basic quantum computers could already break a very common form of modern encryption. It's honestly a really complicated paper, but the experts explained it to me like this - the authors used what's called a heuristic algorithm to try to break encryption. That's basically a formula that's designed to solve a problem really fast by starting with an estimate and using the result to get closer to the answer.

CHANG: OK.

MCLAUGHLIN: You can think of it like throwing a dart at a dart board and using that first hit to try to help you get closer to the bullseye. And all of this is scary because the U.S. government says that its adversaries - China, in particular - is collecting tons of encrypted, sensitive U.S. data in the hopes that, one day, they can use a quantum computer to decrypt it all. If this paper is right, that's a lot sooner than they thought it was.

CHANG: Wow. OK. That's disturbing. But how possible is that, actually? Like, what are experts are saying?

MCLAUGHLIN: So first of all, it's important to clarify that the website where this paper appeared, arXiv, is commonly used in the academic community, but it's not peer-reviewed. Even so, experts in math and physics have taken a closer look already because of the buzz that the paper was getting. They say that it's interesting in terms of incremental scientific progress, but there's basically no evidence at this point that the method would work at scale. At the end of the paper, even the researchers admitted that more work needs to be done.

CHANG: OK. So does that mean that there's no reason to worry? Like, what should be the takeaway from this paper and all of the response to it?

MCLAUGHLIN: So there's not exactly no reason to worry. Experts say that there will, indeed, come a day when quantum computers can break encryption. It's just not here yet. It's really hard to predict these kinds of breakthroughs, but experts say we're probably closer to decades away from that. The real takeaway, I think, is that it's really good to exercise skepticism, especially on overhyped subjects like quantum computing, particularly when geopolitics are involved.

CHANG: Sure.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's tough to speculate about the researchers' intentions when they published, but by putting these claims out there, it had the impact of creating some fear that China is way ahead of the U.S.

CHANG: OK. But you mentioned that China's already stealing data and waiting to decrypt it. So is it just too late at this point to protect those secrets that they've already stolen?

MCLAUGHLIN: It might indeed be too late to protect some of the things already stolen. But, you know, for national security officials who need to keep things secret for a really long time, they've got to do what they can. So that includes designing algorithms that are quantum-proof. The U.S. government's already working on that, but it's going to take a long time. It could also mean rethinking entirely how we store data. Some researchers think breaking files up into little pieces could help prevent an enemy from piecing them back together. You know, a lot of really smart people are working on this full-time.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jenna McLaughlin, another very smart person. Thank you so much, Jenna.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.
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