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The crisis in the Ukraine has drawn world attention since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014. The downing of Malaysian flight MH17, the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and regular Ukrainian forces, and the cloudy intentions of political forces on both sides of the conflict have been the headline winners in terms of media focus.

However, recent coverage has honed in on the use of Russian state-sponsored cyber-attacks on the Ukrainian government. The use of criminal hackers essentially co-opted by Russian security services into attacking Ukrainian institutions seemingly opens up a new ‘front’ in the dispute, and brings into sharp relief the ubiquitous nature of hacking and cyber-attacks as a tool of war in the 21st century.

There is also an ongoing discussion about how best to protect governments and civilian populations against cyber-attacks. Here the focus has fallen on the emergence of quantum computing, and its potential for revolutionising cyber security.

Are we in the midst of a global cyber war?

Away from the Ukraine, better known examples of the ongoing cyber battles fought across the globe are also well reported. At the end of September, a high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials took place. This meeting, ostensibly to discuss wider cyber security issues relating to the business world, took place to a backdrop of recrimination, accusation and counter-accusation in the wake of Federal indictments placed on Chinese military hackers by the USA. The hackers targeted around 20 US transportation contractors with the aim of measuring disruption to military assets: techniques included a complex ‘spear-phishing’ campaign against an airline used in US military transportation activities.

Long-time US ally Israel has also sat at the forefront of a cyber-campaign to undermine the activities of Iran and its ongoing nuclear programme. Two years ago, Israeli and US intelligence services co-operated in creating a computer virus, known as ‘Flame’, in an attempt to collect intel on Iran’s nuclear activities, and prepare the ground for future cyber incursions.

This summer saw the first sustained response from Tehran, during the Gaza conflict. Iranian hackers targeted IDF websites and crucial Israeli software architecture, albeit unsuccessfully. In a quest to beef up security, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to India in September to discuss working with counterparts there to develop a high-tech cyber defence system that would protect both military and civilian structures from hacking attacks.

Where does quantum computing come in?

With this fairly dramatic backdrop, then, the ability to develop better protection against cyber intrusion is another key battleground of sorts. One key theme is quantum computing.

Whereas traditional computing relies upon the coding of zeroes and ones in information processing, quantum computing will develop these elements into greater numbers and smaller parts. It is a move away from more binary thinking towards a situation where multiple states can exist within computer coding regardless of the ‘bit’ classifications. A quantum computer would thus be able to work simultaneously on a vast array of calculations.

Cyber security and quantum computing

Because of the myriad processes that quantum computers can carry out, they essentially become the master code makers and code breakers. Predominantly valued data, say for example bank details, is protected by a series of ‘keys’ safeguarded by mathematical algorithms (prime factors) that are rigorously tested by hacking attacks.

In order to protect the maths behind the traditional algorithms protecting data, the quantum computer will be able to break out these ‘keys’ into much greater numbers than are currently used. Thus traditional encryption of data will become vastly more complex. The almost infinite array of mathematical data used could offer, according to analysts, the prospect of data safety and privacy that is guaranteed by the very laws of physics.

However, the applications of quantum computing remains under developed, although elite systems are operating. There are also debates about how secure the world will be once the advent of quantum computing becomes more mainstream. There is a clear challenge for institutions and indeed governments to keep up with the pace of change. Staying on top of technological innovations that promise much, but could deliver yet more problems, could be defining chapter in the evolution of quantum computing and global cyber security.