LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES: America needs a quantum leap | Columns | #computerhacking | #hacking

In the ceaseless cybersecurity race where good forces chase the bad, many times the criminals at their keyboards are simply more skilled, more innovative, and more sophisticated at leveraging technology to help do their dastardly bidding.

Law enforcement officers go to formal trainings sponsored by vendors who’ve created user-friendly tools meant to bust identity theft rings and reveal hacker personalities that hide behind layers of subterfuge. Meanwhile, the hackers often wield homespun coding talents line-by-line, laboriously plotting and planning a malicious software attack that reaps cryptocurrency riches. On pure technological skills alone, objectively the bad guys in this equation are more meritorious. The government, on the other hand, has deeper pockets for more hardware and computing power.

Whether from the front where criminals are looking over their shoulders to see whether the good guys are behind them, or from the back where the cops are stretching their necks trying to keep apace with the speedy crimes of technology, the views cannot be from only the perspective of intellectual power. Being wily, innovative, and skillful is a black hat’s charge if wanting to stay ahead of the white hats. They’re fighting their war against the powerful government forces and budgets after all. To overcome the lopsided power of the purse in outfitting an offense, it truly is the mental ability of the hackers that keeps them in front.

However, of the two basic necessities—computing power plus intellectual power—no one side can win if its too focused on one or if it leaves one underdeveloped. Even the most learned, chess-like mind of the NCAA’s best and brightest basketball coach won’t cut down the nets in the final game with a team of six-foot-and-under players. Mental might and physicality comingle in the best performances whether in cybersecurity or on the hardwood.

With that reality in place, now think about cybersecurity on the grandest of scales: cyber warfare. The Pentagon has for many years counted cyberspace—the world’s networks of connected computer systems—as the fifth domain of warfare alongside air, land, space, and sea. For my purposes here, I’ll wrap into the description of cyber war its related malignant activities that DoD parses in their more formal way. I’m including cyber espionage and cyber conflict. We know from current events that “conflict” and “war” are carefully distinguished terms when it comes to nation-against-nation fighting. Here, let’s just consider the whole gamut as cyber war.

“Cyber war” can be described as cyberattacks that create loss and damages on a large scale, such as one nation-state disrupting another’s stock exchanges, critical infrastructure, or even their defense systems. Nearly every nation-state, America included, has levied some amount of cyber warfare against their foes in recent years and decades. Some of our most concerning cyber warfare competition comes from Russia, of course, as well as North Korea, Iran, and one country that wavers between healthy partner and risky animus in terms of our relationship, China. In the light of the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s risk has jumped while it nestles up to the Kremlin.

In analyzing cyber warfare potentials between the U.S. and China, each perceiving of itself as the good guy, we’re back to the reality of cybersecurity vis-à-vis cops and robbers. Good chases bad. On this most impressive scale of war it’s imperative to shore up the distance to mitigate loss. Maybe the cops-and-robbers “war” on drugs was sold as such. The great cult classic The Warriors purported to escalate the criminal v. law enforcement trope to the level of warfare. Let’s face it though, war is war, and it doesn’t really occur on street corners any more than it does in boardrooms. The word “war” deserves respect and realism, and cyber war is the new, serious manner of combat with new stylings of armaments that can nevertheless inflict mass damage despite nary a shot fired.

Mirroring the base needs of cybersecurity, cyber war also requires a balanced measure of hardware and human capabilities. In any given China-U.S. scenario both sides are immensely focused and trained in cybersecurity and cyber war tactics and strategies. These are two among few others leading the world in this manner. Tens of thousands of personnel with tens of thousands of hours spent perfecting their skills reflect either nation-state. Some of the most ingenious academic institutions feed research results to the respective defense agencies. The private sector of both powerful nations secretly contributes in untold ways while supplying espionage, hacking, and surveillance technologies of the sort that you nor I have ever seen.

Let’s go truly base, especially looking at the technology side of the coin knowing that both America and China have ample talent available from the intellect side of the essential coin. By truly base I mean pure computing power.

Quantum computing systems are on the forefront of emerging technologies. As the name may evoke, quantum computers operate at an all-time high level of efficiency and effectiveness. They are particularly useful at encryption because their expansive and speedy calculations can create cryptographic locks as well as decrypt information. Quantum computing is in its own micro-arms race. Whoever has the biggest, baddest computer can put to greater use their human intellectual capacity.

In 2019, Google create a quantum system capable of processing information 1,000 times faster than the fastest supercomputer of the day. Impressive! Well, impressive until the Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Excellence in Quantum Information and Quantum Physics published its own results last week. China’s 66-qubit Zuchongzhi 2 functioned one million times faster than Google’s record-breaking machine.

Now we’ll need to catch up. Without excellent human capital, our technological assets may go unutilized to their fullest. Without the most advanced technologies, our intellectual power only goes so far. You can see how, cyber or not, the arms races continue. We will get there … Then be passed again.

Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at edzugeresq@gmail.com.

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