Quantum mechanics promises some incredible technological advancements once large quantum computers become a reality. Computers of this power do not exist yet, but the fact that they could in the future warrants an ethical responsibility of companies, governments, and researchers to anticipate and protect against potential threats. Assuming that this kind of computing power will be realized at some point, even if this is decades in the future, it becomes impudent to assess the potential societal impact of quantum computers on cryptography. This is especially true considering that post-quantum cryptography replacements need to be found within the next ten years (Majot & Yampolskiy, 2015, p. 24) to ensure enough time to work through any bugs that could be exploited if quantum computers were in use before the encryption replacements became mainstream.
For the purposes of this blog post, all that one needs to know about large quantum computers is that they have the potential to be exponentially faster than classical computers when doing the right computations, and that Shor’s algorithm is especially efficient for reversing encryption with the help of quantum computers (Wolf, 2017, p. 272). Thus, the successful creation of large quantum computers also means the success of codebreaking. This has serious implications for society, including a breakdown of electronic banking, an inability for the government and companies to protect their information, and a loss of privacy (Wolf, 2017, p. 273-274). Essentially, any information that is encrypted with classical algorithms (RSA, ECC, etc.), such as secure company e-mails, hospital records, even internet connections would now be vulnerable to unauthorized decryption if malicious parties have access to large quantum computers.
Note that these “malicious parties” are clearly unethical in their behavior. Even from a utilitarian perspective, where pleasure (i.e. the profitability of gaining unauthorized access to secure data) is of utmost importance to determining the goodness of an act, one must also consider the “extent” of the pain felt by others who will be affected by the act (Lefkowitz, 2017, p. 73). The truly unethical nature of quantum decryption with intent to steal data is summed up in that: the “most morally defensible action is the option whose consequences have the highest overall net pleasure score or the lowest overall net pain score” (Lefkowitz, 2017, p. 73). Since that pain score involves all of the pain (and subsequent harm) done to innocent people whose data is now exposed, stolen, and used for profit, there is little justification that these codebreakers are being ethical.
Yet, however unethical these bad actors are, it is inevitable that they will use their access to quantum computers for exploitation or mass disruption. And this is the foundation of the ethical responsibility that governments, companies, and researchers have to properly prepare for quantum decryption. These societal implications only stay true if powers of authority choose to do nothing to prepare for a future that includes large quantum computers. And from a consequentialist perspective, inaction is unethical because the direct consequences of not protecting against the quantum decryption of data are clearly known and incredibly devastating. “The theory of welfare utilitarianism…considers people’s welfare or interests as the basis on which utility should be assessed” (Lefkowitz, 2017, p. 76). Therefore, from a protection standpoint alone, companies and powers of authority are obligated to create and employ post-quantum encryption algorithms to make sure that the welfare of the people is upheld by the continued security of their data.
Lefkowitz, J. L. (2017). Normative ethical theories: II. Consequentialism. In Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 71-85). New York, NY: Routledge.
Majot, A. & Yampolskiy, R. (September 2015). Global catastrophic risk and security implications of quantum computers. Futures 72, 17-26. Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/science/article/pii/S0016328715000294
Wolf, R. (December 2017). The potential impact of quantum computers on society. Ethics and Information Technology, 19(4), 271-276. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1961740562