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    Critical Thought

    Critical thoughts on quantum technologies

    The Evolution of Encryption: From Ancient Codes to Unbreakable Algorithms

    ByByron Bekker

    Nov 21, 2023
    The Evolution of Encryption: From Ancient Codes to Unbreakable Algorithms

    Encryption, the art of securing our data, has come a long way since the days of ancient secret codes. Today, when we log in to our bank accounts or send messages on secure platforms, our information is protected by complex algorithms that rely on mathematics. But the quest for unbreakable encryption is far from over.

    In the world of cryptography, encryption works like a cyber padlock, where only someone with the right key can unlock the data. This is achieved through encryption schemes that use one-way functions; math problems that are easy to solve in one direction but almost impossible to solve in reverse. These problems serve as barriers to keep our data safe from prying eyes and cyber attacks.

    However, there is a lingering challenge. While mathematicians suspect the existence of true one-way functions, they have yet to prove it conclusively. The current encryption schemes we rely on are based on assumptions that these math problems are difficult or impractical to solve. But it’s possible that there are better mathematical means yet to be discovered. The uncertainty of these one-way functions is what haunts the world of encryption. We trust our data’s security, knowing that cracking these schemes is still beyond our capabilities – at least for now.

    The future brings new threats in the form of quantum computers. These advanced machines have the potential to unravel the math problems that currently safeguard our data. Quantum computers could make quick work of encryption schemes that are robust against classical computers. This puts sensitive personal and financial information at risk. The fear is that hackers could steal encrypted data today and wait for the day when quantum computers become powerful enough to decrypt it.

    To combat this looming threat, computer scientists, mathematicians, and cryptographers are on a tireless quest to find new encryption algorithms that can withstand attacks from both classical and quantum computers. They are searching for a big, sticky math problem; something that is both challenging and easy to implement in the digital realm. However, no one has yet discovered a problem that is provably hard for all types of computers to solve. This ongoing search for unbreakable encryption algorithms continues to drive researchers forward, even in the face of uncertainty.

    One theoretical computer scientist, Rafael Pass, is tackling the core problem of whether one-way functions truly exist. His research delves into the concept of one-way functions and their connections to other open problems. While theorists search for answers, practical encryption researchers are working on developing schemes that may be strong enough to stand against quantum computers, even if they can’t be proven to be unbreakable.

    At the heart of this pursuit lies the question of trust. Can we believe that post-quantum algorithms are truly unassailable? Throughout history, seemingly impenetrable encryption candidates have often fallen to unexpectedly simple attacks. The trajectory of cybersecurity in the near future will be determined by how well these algorithms hold up against new threats.

    The history of encryption is rife with examples of methods that were eventually broken. From the ancient Greeks using scytales to Julius Caesar’s substitution cipher, secret codes have often been vulnerable to determined codebreakers. Even in more recent history, encrypted letters from Mary, Queen of Scots, were intercepted and decoded. The quest for unbreakable encryption is an ongoing battle against the ingenuity of hackers and the limitations of our own knowledge.

    As we look to the future, the race to develop unbreakable encryption algorithms continues. Organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are leading the way, testing and standardizing potential post-quantum algorithms. One such algorithm, CRYSTALS-Kyber, has shown promise in countering quantum attacks and may soon become the recommended choice for encrypting data. However, only time will tell whether these algorithms truly live up to their claims of unbreakability.


    1. What is encryption?

    Encryption is the process of disguising data using secrets or algorithms to protect it from unauthorized access.

    2. How does encryption work?

    Encryption works by converting readable data into an unreadable form using encryption keys. Only authorized individuals with the correct key can decrypt and access the data.

    3. What are one-way functions?

    One-way functions are mathematical problems that are easy to solve in one direction but difficult or impractical to solve in reverse.

    4. What is a quantum computer?

    A quantum computer is an advanced computing device that uses quantum bits, or qubits, to process and manipulate information. They have the potential to solve complex problems at a much faster rate than classical computers.

    – [National Institute of Standards and Technology](https://www.nist.gov/)