The Ukrainian War Could Usher in Quantum Arms Race

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Just as nuclear weapons remain a threat in the physical space, quantum-powered capabilities could become a threat in cyberspace.

It was no big surprise that cyberattacks were among the first weapons that Russia deployed in its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has been fingered as the culprit behind many high profile attacks in recent years, including those aimed at the power grid and other parts of our critical infrastructure. And while Russian tanks and artillery in Ukraine can’t hurt this country, cyberattacks are certainly capable of causing a lot of damage and disruption. It was one of the first issues addressed by President Biden as the war began.

“If Russia pursues cyberattacks against our companies, our critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond,” Biden said during a February news briefing. “For months, we've been working closely with the private sector to harden our cyber defenses, and sharpen our ability to respond to the Russian cyberattacks as well.”

And so far, everyone from government to the private sector seems to be taking the threat of Russian cyberattacks seriously. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recently issued a priority update warning entitled Shields Up, a likely reference to the command given by captains in the fictional Star Trek universe before taking their ships into battle or other dangerous situations. It asks everyone to be especially vigilant about suspicious cyber activity and to immediately report those suspicions to the government.

“While there are no specific or credible cyber threats to the U.S. homeland at this time, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, which has involved cyber-attacks on Ukrainian government and critical infrastructure organizations, may impact organizations both within and beyond the region,” the alert states. “Every organization—large and small—must be prepared to respond to disruptive cyber activity.”

So far, the heightened awareness combined with years of beefing up cyber defenses seems to be working. There have been no new, large scale cyberattacks from Russia reported. It could be that the Russian-supported hackers are busy working in other areas, or that Russia does not want to raise tensions even higher than they are now. It’s also possible that, because many high-profile hacking groups have declared a cyber war against Russia, their IT teams are playing a lot of defense these days.

Beware the coming of Y2Q

The one thing that all of these events have in common is that everyone assumes that cyberattacks will be launched using conventional, binary computers. But just like there are fears that a conventional war in the physical space could go nuclear, there is growing concern that a conventional cyber war might employ quantum computers. And the side that strikes first using quantum-based attacks to shred traditional encryption-based defenses will have a devastating advantage over its opponents.

There is even a new term starting to circulate that encompasses this fear—Y2Q—with some government groups and other forward-looking organizations already starting to use it. Y2Q stands for “years to quantum” and is meant to bring up allusions to the old Y2K issue. 

For those of you who may be too young to remember, Y2K, also called the Year 2000 Bug (or Problem or Glitch), was a computer crisis that dominated much of the computing landscape in the late 1990s. Back when computer memory and storage was expensive, programmers saved space by using two digits as the year field in their programs and databases instead of four. They figured that by the time the year 2000 rolled around, whatever program or system they were working on would be obsolete and out of service. Only the systems lasted a lot longer than expected, so the fear was that once the clock ticked past New Year's Eve in January of the year 2000, that computers might instead think it was 1900 and stop working properly. Government and industry spent an estimated $600 billion fixing or upgrading systems to get ready, and when the clock stuck midnight, hardly anything bad happened anywhere around the world.

While the Y2K story had a happy ending, there are quite a few differences with Y2Q. For one, Y2K had a definite and known deadline. It also wasn’t malicious, so nobody was driving it or pushing it along. We had a set number of years to fix the problem and could be certain that nothing bad would happen before that date. With quantum computing on the rise around the world, and with new advancements being announced all the time, it probably won’t be long before a quantum computer is able to reliably crack advanced cryptographic algorithms within a reasonable period of time.

Putting defenses in now to combat future quantum threats

The good news is that government is not waiting for YQ2, and agencies are already attempting to create new protection methods that are resistant to quantum hacking. NIST is a major driver of this effort, bringing together government, industry, universities and private individuals to try and work up defenses against quantum hacking even before a sufficiently powerful machine breaks the current barriers.

According to the NIST website describing this effort, “It is critical to begin planning for the replacement of hardware, software and services that use public-key algorithms now so that information is protected from future attacks.”

NATO’s Cyber Security Center is also said to be working with the United States to test out encrypted communication methods that would be protected from interception and decoding by quantum computers. It’s another important effort, because while there does not seem to be any quantum computer capable of decoding RSA-encrypted messages now, some countries like China are thought to already be collecting as much encrypted data as they can get. While that information remains protected right now, it can be stored and possibly cracked in the future as soon as a powerful enough quantum computer comes online. Adding quantum-proof protections to communications and data right now would protect it from that future threat, and stave off Y2Q.

In terms of the current war in Ukraine, while Russia is seen as a competitor on the world stage for quantum computing, with millions invested in many projects, they are not yet thought of as a leader in the field like the United States or China. It’s almost impossible for Russia to quickly employ quantum computers to give themselves an advantage over Ukraine or the many nations that are supporting them. But the war does serve as a reminder of that possibility in the not-too-distant future. 

Staving off the perils of Y2Q will require a concentrated effort akin to the one that defeated Y2K. We are already moving ahead with that, but can’t afford to ease up or let our guard down. 

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys