The possible dark side of quantum communication technologies

We assume that quantum technologies will progress rapidly, and in the near future will reach the level where they can significantly impact society. Most of this magazine discusses the bright side of quantum technologies, however there is also a possible dark side. Like any other technology, quantum technologies are neither positive nor negative; as any technology per se they are neutral. The extent to which quantum technologies will impact society, whether positively or negatively, will be defined by how humans apply them. Cyberpunk-style scenarios, like megacorporations using quantum technologies to seize all societal control and eliminate governments, are rather far-fetched: the majority of modern countries have the ability to prevent this. But let’s take a look at potentially unpleasant changes that quantum technologies could realistically bring to society: our ‘doom scenarios’.

Most of our doom scenarios are based on disruption of the currently existing balances:

• The balance between society, government, and business.

• The balance between the protection of sensitive information from open access (personal, medical, military, governmental information, etc) and making non-sensitive information openly accessible (e.g. to ensure control of society over government officials).

Our doom scenarios are possible courses of events where such balance is greatly disturbed, and cannot be repaired by the usual everyday means of governmental or societal control.

We do not base our discussion on predictions about which quantum technology will come first, when, or where. Such predictions are rarely successful. Many of the topics we discuss are based on unsolved scientific problems: for instance, it is not yet proven that quantum computation is exponentially faster than classical computation for solving specific mathematical problems. Also, it is possible that new developments in computer sciences will create efficient codes that cannot be broken by quantum computers, or require extremely large-scale quantum computers, which would keep sensitive information safe for much longer than expected. Of course, not all doom scenarios are equally possible: in fact, we consider most of them to be unlikely. We include them because understanding the possible negative impacts of quantum technologies can help society at large to prepare for this possible future, and as a result gain a better control of the situation, or even prevent things from happening when the time comes.

Bad guys gain access to vital infrastructure

The most obvious, and most often discussed, doom scenario is based on the possibility of a quantum computer breaking existing cryptographic codes, enabling unauthorized access to protected information. If this happens, it may become easy for criminals to get unauthorized access to secure facilities, to implant malware or to disguise malware as software upgrades, etc. The most disruptive situations may occur if criminals or terrorists get access to vital facilities: energy plants, water supplies and water management, air and railroad traffic controls, etc. This can bring entire countries and economies close to a standstill for prolonged periods of time. Equally disruptive – although in a different way – is the situation where criminals or terrorists gain access to protected military or law enforcement information, enabling them to outsmart their opponents.

Impact financial systems

Money has become a digital asset and most banking transactions are done online. Economists estimate that less than 10% of all the money in the world exists as bank notes and coins. Cyber criminals targeting financial gains may use quantum technologies to hit financial networks and online banking: consider, for instance, primitive online theft at an excessive scale, that would render online banking transactions practically useless and thus seriously damage or completely cripple the modern banking system. In a similar way, unauthorized access can cause massive disruptions in the functioning of major banks and commodities/stock exchanges.

New weapons that should never see the light of day

Rogue states or advanced terrorist groups might get access to blind quantum computing. Quantum computers are especially good at designing new materials and molecules – for good and for bad. Blind quantum computing services, accessed through 100% secure communication, can enable users to design new kinds of modern warfare, e.g. chemical or nuclear weapons, without anyone knowing about it, or use available large-scale computational facilities for advanced code breaking efforts. In a similar way, it may give terrorist groups or organizations, or rogue states, access to major military-oriented computational facilities to gain information about such development performed by other groups/countries, or possibly sabotage such computer-aided design and development.

Increasing power of large tech companies

Quantum technologies are being developed by big tech companies, research institutions and universities. Although findings from research done by universities are in the public domain, big tech companies often invest heavily in such research. As a result, big tech companies have early access to findings and can influence the focus of research to fit their own interest. Quantum technologies may provide many new opportunities in the areas of development of new materials and weapons, large-scale analysis of critical sensitive information and surveillance, secure communications, quantum-enabled computer sabotage, etc. Corporations may offer these new opportunities to governments in exchange for more favourable treatment, or for other political advantages, thus gaining too much political leverage. At the same time, the quantum technologies may make these corporations less amenable to conventional means of governmental and societal control.

Note that this may happen even without explicit bad intentions on the side of these corporations, simply in the normal course of legitimately pursuing new business advantages, seeking for better deals with the government, and ensuring a better position in the market. It may be too tempting for weaker governments to use tit-for-tat policies when dealing with such corporations, and surrender too much power to large businesses in exchange for short-term political gains. In the situation of strong international competition, some governments may even actively encourage this approach, hoping to exploit the quantum technologies offered by the corporations in order to advance their national or international political status.

Increasing power gap between rich and poor countries

Many governments will take measures to protect themselves from new security threats caused by quantum technologies. It is most likely that developing countries will lag behind in adopting advanced cryptographic approaches (classical or quantum). Even in developed countries the required changes in the computer networks and infrastructure will take a long time, given the large scale of the upgrades, and the associated financial expenses, manpower, and time needed. Developing countries will struggle to take their level of security to the next level. Especially countries that are rich in natural resources and have instable political systems will become more vulnerable to espionage and corruption.

Old secrets will become known

If quantum computers become a reality, and they are indeed able to easily break today’s encryption methods, we can be reasonably sure that the military and law enforcement agencies will be vulnerable, for some time to come, to other governments, criminals and terrorists possessing advanced quantum technology-based tools. Initially, parties will use their knowledge of sensitive information to exert political power. There may be blackmail on a strategic political level at an unprecedented scale. Archived diplomatic, military, or police information that were encrypted with older cryptographic tools, may be very damaging if they are decrypted and become publicly available. This may lead to a massive crisis of trust between citizens and their government, which will result in political instability and new political parties seizing control. Some claim that the quantum computer is the digital equivalent of the atomic bomb. Whether the effect will be this destructive needs to be seen. Nevertheless, scientists and regulators need to be aware of the power that will be unleashed.

Governments losing their grip on criminal organisations

If secure quantum communication solutions become available to criminals or terrorists, they will render existing surveillance and wiretapping tools used by the military and law enforcement agencies useless. It is possible that commercial quantum communication services become available before legislation on these technologies is in place, limiting the surveillance power of official bodies.

Governments becoming less transparent

Quantum technology offers governments secure cryptography and communications that prevent transparency and control by the public. This could make corruption within governments much less risky and more tempting.

Governments gaining too much control over their citizens

Exclusive access of some government agencies to the quantum-enabled tools may greatly disturb the intra-government balances, giving some agencies too much political power and weight. Also, governments may overextend their authority by using massive large-scale data processing and almost real-time decrypting abilities enabled by quantum technologies, thereby penetrating too much into the lives of people and fostering totalitarian regimes.

On the other hand, if citizens have access to 100% secure communication, this greatly increases the individual freedoms and an individual’s ability to avoid governmental control, which counteracts the tendency of many governments towards deep invasion into the private lives of people.