What if Encryption Just Stopped Working?

That's one of the premises of Light Reading's original science fiction serials, "Silence Like Diamonds."

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

August 7, 2015

4 Min Read
What if Encryption Just Stopped Working?

The next segment of our science fiction serial is up:

Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 5: Circular Trail

Need to catch up? Read from the beginning: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business

When you're up-to-date, come back here and we'll talk about encryption and how it's turned upside down in the world of "Silence Like Diamonds."

Over on his own blog, the author, John Barnes, calls out a key passage from Friday's episode: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 3: Principle One

  • Ever since the Yan-Dimri fast factorization algorithm had flipped the advantage from the encryptors to the cryptanalysts, only isolated systems could be really secure (at the cost of being really useless).

That sentence is cryptic (so to speak), but Barnes explains on his blog what he means -- and it's exactly what I thought he meant. (See Predictions Are Hard, Especially About the Future)

For the entire history of the public Internet -- call it 20 years or so -- we've enjoyed an asymmetry in encryption. It is far, far easier to encrypt a signal than it is to break the encryption.

How much easier? So easy that any $150 Chromebook or $100 smartphone can encrypt information so robustly that the most powerful and expensive supercomputer in the world can't break it.

That's very peculiar. We're not used to cheap computers being able to out-do expensive computers.

But we don't really think about it. We take it for granted, as if it's natural law.

In his blog, Barnes explains that this situation is only about 40 years old, dating back to the 1970s. Previous to that, encryption and codebreakers were in an arms race, with codebreakers breaking encryption nearly as fast as the codes were created.

Now here's where things get really interesting: Nobody has ever proven that it's impossible to quickly break a code created with the strong encryption we rely on.

And nobody's proven that it's possible, either.

We just don't know.

We know that it hasn't been done in the 40 or so years these codes have been around.

Well, probably not.

All of global commerce depends on these encryption algorithms, and the trust that they're practically impossible to break.

In the near future of "Silence Like Diamonds," someone has figured out a way to break the best encryption algorithms. Two someones, named Yan and Dimri.

What would that world be like?

So far at least, the Yan-Dimri breakthrough hasn't figured much into the main story of "Silence Like Diamonds."

My first thought when I read the story, and John's follow-up post, was, "Wow! The world would be completely different! We'd have no privacy, and no secrets!"

And yet isn't that the situation we live in now? We live in the world after Edward Snowden, and countless other data breaches. For millions of us, our privacy is already broken. If attackers could break encryption, they'd just have new tools. It wouldn't be a fundamental change for privacy.

The breakthrough John imagines would mean big changes for business, because encryption is how we enable e-commerce. How could anyone do credit card transactions or funds transfers if they knew that criminals were likely eavesdropping over the the wire, and collecting credit card numbers and bank information?

Find out more about the New IP on Light Reading's The New IP Channel

You wouldn't be able to trust the Internet for financial transactions anymore. You wouldn't be able to trust any means of electronic communications. You'd have to go back to transmitting funds and other private transactions by hand, using couriers, like in the 19th century and earlier. Instead of carrying documents, these couriers would carry portable disk drives and USB sticks, but otherwise the procedure would be the same.

Meanwhile, network managers would have to find new ways to innovate and do business on their networks. But that part isn't science fiction -- it's happening right now, part of the New IP revolution.

Read Light Reading every day to find out more about the New IP, and come back Tuesday for the next installment of "Silence Like Diamonds."

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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