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Google’s plan to keep your Web browsing safe from the cyberattacks of tomorrow

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
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There's a huge threat looming over the way people's data are protected right now — and Google is testing out a way to guard against it.

The threat is a still-experimental technology called quantum computing, and Google announced Thursday that it was taking the first step toward protecting user's browsing data against it. The search giant is testing out a Web encryption method called "New Hope," which is designed to help fend off potential quantum attacks for a small number of Chrome browser users when they connect to Google's servers.

To understand why quantum computing could be such a big problem for encryption, we'll have to talk a little bit about how it works. Normal computers rely on bits, the smallest units of data, represented by either a zero or one, to store and process information. But quantum computer bits or "qubits" can encode more complex pieces of information.

That means that quantum computers have the potential to solve certain kinds of problems much, much faster than regular computers — including guessing the digital keys that are used to lock up the encryption techniques that are common today. Basically, that means quantum computing has the potential to turn into a kind of master lockpick that could help governments or cybercriminals open up everything from your email to your online banking account.

Luckily, that kind of attack would require much larger quantum computers than what exists today, so it's still a theoretical problem. But it's a problem Google wants to head off by figuring out how to deploy "post-quantum" encryption algorithms, those designed to be more difficult to crack with the type of processing quantum computing uses, sooner rather than later.

The algorithm they're testing now, New Hope — and yes, that is a Star Wars reference — was created by cryptography researchers Erdem Alkim, Léo Ducas, Thomas Pöppelmann and Peter Schwabe. In Google's experiment, the New Hope-based system is used alongside current industry standards to ensure that data remains protected for now, even if the test is unsuccessful.

If the experiment works, the information it protects will be safe from the prying eyes of hackers or governments who may deploy sophisticated quantum computers sometime down the line — and that future-proofing is one of the reasons Google is doing this now.

"A hypothetical, future quantum computer would be able to retrospectively decrypt any Internet communication that was recorded today, and many types of information need to remain confidential for decades," Google software engineer Matt Braithwaite wrote in a blog post revealing the experiment. "Thus even the possibility of a future quantum computer is something that we should be thinking about today."