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How a quantum computer could break 2048-bit RSA encryption in 8 hours

Many people worry that quantum computers will be able to crack certain codes used to send secure messages. The codes in question encrypt data using “trapdoor” mathematical functions that work easily in one direction but not in the other. That makes encrypting data easy but decoding it hugely difficult without the help of a special key.

These encryption systems have never been unbreakable. Instead, their security is based on the huge amount of time it would take for a classical computer to do the job. Modern encryption methods are specifically designed so that decoding them would take so long they are practically unbreakable.

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But quantum computers change this thinking. These machines are far more powerful than classical computers and should be able to break these codes with ease.  

That raises an important question—when will quantum computers be powerful enough to do this? After that date, any information protected by this form of encryption becomes insecure.

So computer scientists have attempted to calculate the resources such a quantum computer might need and then work out how long it will be until such a machine can be built. And the answer has always been decades.

Today, that thinking needs to be revised thanks to the work of Craig Gidney at Google in Santa Barbara and Martin Ekerå at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. These guys have found a more efficient way for quantum computers to perform the code-breaking calculations, reducing the resources they require by orders of magnitude.

Consequently, these machines are significantly closer to reality than anyone suspected. The result will make uncomfortable reading for governments, military and security organizations, banks, and anyone else who needs to secure data for 25 years or longer.

First some background. Back in 1994, the American mathematician Peter Shor...

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