Ever since the outside world discovered the decentralized digital currency Bitcoin, the odds have been stacked against it, and the pundits, the so-called “experts,” have been digging its virtual grave. This practice has become so prevalent, and so misguided, that a site has been dedicated to the litany of Bitcoin obituaries.
Starting in December 2010, the site is now up to 112 entries of digital cash death. Here, we will go over #112, provided by Newsweek, as they seek to bury Bitcoin through the highly-anticipated future of the quantum computer. This invention, in theory, will change the world and could destroy Bitcoin within a matter of minutes.
Quantum leap for computing power
The current generation of computing runs on bits of information that are represented by one and zeros. These bits represent the first generation of mass computing and we may be coming to the end of the first, with Quantum computing representing Version 2.0.
Quantum computing is a theory begun in 1982 by the physicist Richard Feynman. Quantum computers run on “qubits” which can be in two states at once over a simple, single binary state. This versatility allows the system to become exponentially more powerful than today’s computer, at least for certain tasks and situations. Sometimes, it is only slightly superior. In other tasks, it is a quantum leap forward.
Thusly, the world’s largest corporations, governments, and state-run agencies are working furiously to build this holy grail of computers. These factions include Google, the NSA, the CIA, the nation of Canada and the E.U’s European Commission, who has invested over $1 bln euros into the project this year alone. And these just are the projects that we know about.
Threat to Bitcoin?
Bitcoin and its cryptographic protocol, to this point, have proven too strong and resilient to be overthrown by the current level of computing power thrown at it in a world full of hackers and national empires seeking to destroy its financial independence. Yet, a targeted quantum computer attack may be above its pay grade.
Going back to 2008, even before Bitcoin was born, Scott Aaronson of The Scientific American has declared quantum computers as the perfect tool to destroy current digital protocols like Bitcoin, stating in his expository work called “The Limits of Quantum”:
“According to our current understanding, they would provide dramatic speedups for a few specific problems, such as breaking the cryptographic codes that are widely used for monetary transactions on the Internet.”
At the time, I’m sure he was referring to things like online banking, which were beginning to take hold in the mainstream, and not speaking about decentralized currencies, in particular. Would quantum computers mean your online banking, and all other encrypted apps and programs, would also become null and void regarding security? Other quantum experts of the present day are in agreement that quantum is the answer to Bitcoin’s cryptographic security question.
“Bitcoin is definitely not quantum computer proof,” Andersen Cheng, co-founder of U.K. cybersecurity firm Post Quantum, told Newsweek. “Bitcoin will expire the very day the first Quantum computer appears.”
This seems like a hyperbole, considering if you have world’s first quantum computer you probably have more important things to do with it than to steal all of the world’s Bitcoins. If that was the point, that is one hell of a compliment to Bitcoin that its destruction is number one on the To-Do list, but the point is made.
How would a quantum computer unravel Bitcoin’s protection?
As we all know, Bitcoin runs on a public key, which is like an email address to receive payments, and a private key that protects the account and proves ownership of these digital coins.
Martin Tomlinson, a professor in the Security, Communications and Networking Research Centre at Plymouth University says a Quantum computer could take the public key and decode the private key from it: “If you have a Quantum computer then you’re able to just basically calculate the private key from the public key. It would take just a minute or two. So, by learning about all the private keys using a Quantum computer, you’d have access to all the Bitcoin that’s available.”
Tomlinson does not hold out much hope for the Bitcoin community legislating a workaround for this, and agreeing to upgrade the protocol by voting in a new signature code. He takes the recent Blockchain block size debate as proof that the community cannot get it together enough to protect the entire system’s existence.
“It will be doomed,” Tomlinson says. “Any disruption needs the consensus of the Bitcoin community and that can’t even be realized when it comes to the transaction limit problem. That’s a relatively simple problem compared to re-making the entire digital signature method. It’s probably impossible, so Bitcoin has had it.”
Future Bitcoin updates should prevent the potential attack
Given that many of the world’s greatest empires are currently burning the midnight oil to take the world’s computers to the next level, and one Quantum computer could overpower the world’s current state of encryption, this should be actively discussed within the Bitcoin developer community. Quantum computers cannot overpower standard computer code at everything, but Bitcoin seems to be in some sort of jeopardy.
Some say that Bitcoin is indeed safe through its cryptographic hashing and elliptic curve cryptography if you use a new address for each transaction. Others say quantum computers can weaken Bitcoin’s algorithmic security, but can’t break it.
Hopefully, future Bitcoin updates will seek to prevent this potential attack on the global system and add the necessary safeguards. Maybe this can start the ball rolling on providing the core system an ounce of prevention against this possibility, versus a pound of cure.
Governments and mega-corporations are all about control and centralization, and Bitcoin is the last stallion of economic freedom and personal digital security of funds. Let's make sure Bitcoin can run free, like the Internet, and not leave its future up to chance and hubris.