If I Had A Quantum Computer, I'd Keep Quiet About It
How do you use your mad code cracking skills without alerting your targets?
Dateline Woking, 22nd February 2023
Before we get on to Bitcoin, I want to take a few minutes of your time to tell you the story of the Zimmerman telegram, a story that is well known to military historians and computer security experts and for good reason.
The story begins in World War I, when Britain wanted America to join the fight against the Axis of Edwardian Evil: Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottomans. In 1917, the Kaiser’s ministers had come up with some interesting plans to extend the war on multiple fronts. They wanted to persuade inhabitants of the British (and French) colonies in the Middle East to launch a jihad against the colonial powers and they wanted Mexico to enter the war on the German side with the latter plan intended to divide a potential US war effort.
(At this point, I cannot recommend historian Barbara Tuchman’s 1966 account of the affair, “The Zimmermann Telegram”, highly enough.)
To execute this dastardly plot, the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed the ambassador to approach the Mexican government with a proposal to form a military alliance against the United States. It specifically promised Mexico the land acquired and paid for by the United States after the US-Mexican War of 1846-48 if the Mexicans helped Germany to win the war. The German ambassador relayed the message but the Mexican president declined the offer.
Naturally, so sensitive a topic demanded an encrypted epistle and it was duly dispatched after being encoded using the German top secret “0075" code. As it happened, “0075” was a code that the British had already cracked. Thus, the telegram was intercepted and decrypted quickly enough to get the gist of it to the British Naval Intelligence unit, Room 40. In next to no time, the decoded dynamite was on the desk of the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, teutonic perfidy laid bare.
Now, however, the British were faced with an interesting problem. How can you use intercepted information without revealing that there is a security flaw and that you have exploited it? Consider the options:
If the British had complained to the Germans about trying to get Mexico into the war, then the Germans would know that the British had the key to their code and they would switch to another code that the British might not be able to break for months, missing much vital military intelligence along the way. What’s more, the Americans would know that the British were tapping their incoming diplomatic traffic, but
If they did not reveal the contents, they might miss the chance to bring America into the war.
The British codebreaker's innovation solution was to leak the information in such a way as to make it look as if the leak had come from the Mexican telegraph company: since the German relay from Washington to Mexico used a different code, that the Americans already knew to be broken, this was entirely plausible.
If you’re wondering what happened, well despite strong anti-German (and anti-Mexican) feelings in the US, the telegram was believed to be fake news planted by the British to get America to join the war. This theory was bolstered by German and Mexican diplomats as well as the Hearst press empire. However, on March 29th, Zimmermann gave a speech confirming the text of the telegram. On April 2nd, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, and on April 6th they complied.
The point of this story is that if you have a means to decode highly secret information, you have to be very careful how you use that information, because if people know that you can decode their highly secret information, they will find a different way of protecting it.
Decode And Win
Why am I thinking about this? Well, the accountants Deloitte reckon that about four million Bitcoins could be stolen by a quantum computer. With Bitcoin at $20,000 or so, that means billions of dollars is up for grabs. It would therefore be well worth spending a few billion to build such a device if you are a criminal, well worth spending tens of billions or even hundreds of billions on such a device when Bitcoin has taken over and has become the new digital gold and each Bitcoin is worth like $1m each or something which is bound to happen I read about it on the internet.
Let’s apply the lessons of the Zimmermann telegram in this case. Suppose that I had invented a quantum computer capable of looting Bitcoin at will. If I get hold of the Satoshi wallet and transfer a couple of billion dollars to myself, my cover will be blown. I’ll have the Elliptic hellhounds on my tail and even if it takes years, they will track me down. Look at what happened to the billions hacked from the Bitfinex exchange in 2016: Last year the US Department of Justice seized $3.6bn and arrested Heather Morgan--aka “Razzlekhan”--and her husband Ilya Lichtenstein for attempting to launder 119,754 bitcoins from the hack.)
with kind permission of Helen Holmes (CC-BY-ND 4.0)
Why am I thinking about this now? Well, it’s because of the claim by Chinese researchers that they have found a way to break the RSA algorithm (on which much of the internet’s security depends) using the current generation of quantum computers, years before the technology was expected to pose a threat. In the paper on “Factoring integers with sublinear resources on a superconducting quantum processor” the researchers says that they can break the 2048-bit RSA using a 372 quantum bits (qubits) computer.
(IBM has already said that its 433-qubit Osprey system, the most powerful quantum computer to have been publicly unveiled, will be made available this year.)
When I read this report, I had the same thought as Alexander Martin in The Record: The authors of the paper in question are affiliated with some of China’s most prestigious universities, including several State Key Laboratories which receive direct funding and support from Beijing, and many observers have said that they expected such a breakthrough, with such significant security implications, would be classified by the Chinese authorities.
(If the British government has already discovered such an algorithm, I’d hope that they would keep it to themselves for the time being and come up with some Zimmermann-style subterfuges to exploit the ability.)
While security experts seem sceptical that this Chinese solution can scale, I could not help but notice that while The Patriot Act became law 45 days after the 9.11.01 terrorist attacks, The Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act (“Quantum Act”) was signed within days of the Chinese paper being published. You can understand the fear, because while the Chinese claims may be exaggerated, there is no doubt that code-cracking quantum computers will happen.
Professor John Martinis, who used to be the top scientist in the Google quantum computing team, says that a system with enough logical qubits to execute powerful algorithms that attack problems that are beyond the capability of classical supercomputers is about a decade away. If I come across a way to find prime factors in polynomial time using a quantum computer before then, I can assure you that you won’t read about it in my LinkedIn feed or here on Substack.
"Building a Q-campus: realising a quantum ecosystem in Delft" ?!?!?!
I never heard of this or "Birch Consultants". Imposters!!!
Dear Dave, https://www.betaalvereniging.nl/wp-content/uploads/Quantum-computing-keep-payments-safe-and-secure.pdf (I believe the first footnote quotes you). Almost 3 years old ....