Whether they’re uncovering drug cartels, teaching how to protect secrets, improving the image of the police department or fighting corruption, skepticism is their speciality

Associate Professor of Computer Science, TU Wien

In the digital age, we use cryptography every day – for the encryption of emails and secure internet connections. With the threat of hacking a constant worry, these skills seem like our best defense. Which they are, in a sense: Without cryptography the problem would be worse.

But the trouble is, it’s not enough.  The hackers have other ways.

“Hackers have knowledge of many things, but it’s usually more about errors in software products – for instance, internet protocols or web servers,” said Dr. Uwe Egly, 56, a lecturer in cryptography at the TU Wien.

“They then gain access to other computers…” The problem comes not so much from cracking cryptographic codes, but, like old-fashioned breaking and entering, hacking works by sneaking in through any number of countless electronic backdoors.

But the weakening of security is also a problem of politics. Last year, the U.S. government tried to force Apple to provide a “master key” to an encrypted iPhone that was thought to be crucial to a terrorist investigation. What they wanted was the mathematical formula for the algorithms that are the “key” to encrypting and decrypting the information special to each iPhone model.

On this issue, Egly falls solidly on the side of the citizens. “This is a very delicate question, but in principal, it’s more important for citizens to be able to protect their communications,” he said. Handing over a “master key” for one investigation would have meant the loss of privacy for millions of users.

But serious as this is, Egly is more concerned about some of the future technical challenges for cryptography. Quantum computers, for example, are already on the horizon and would render the complicated protections that cryptographers deal with today obsolete. At present, cryptography “is based on the difficulty of computing the factors of an integer. Quantum computers will solve integer factorization easily, so when they are fully working, this kind of cryptography will be dead.”

Still, quantum computers are at least 10 to 15 years away. So for now, Egly says, our secrets are (more or less) safe.

Historically, cryptography was used by the powerful; nowadays, everybody uses it, even without knowing it, when they use a computer.

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Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.