Novel quantum computers and quantum communication networks will provide intelligence services with vast new capabilities for surveillance and attack. The arrival of these systems will put further pressure on collaborative and transparent internet governance models, as state actors seek to maximise control over the architecture of the internet of the future. For advocates of freedom of expression or the right to privacy on the internet, the dawn of the quantum age doesn’t bode well.

In December 2020, a team of Chinese researchers reliably demonstrated ‘quantum advantage’: an experimental quantum computer was able to solve a meaningful problem that is intractable even for today’s best digital supercomputer. The exercise in boson-sampling took around 200 seconds to complete. In sharp contrast, it would have taken its digital rival around 2-3 billion years to spit out a result. While the computation was restricted to a complex niche problem in quantum physics, the experiment nonetheless provides an awe-inspiring glimpse into the future of computing. Radically different in their architecture, the quantum computers of tomorrow promise an exponential speedup of processing power that will dwarf today’s best-performing digital machines.

Yet quantum principles such as superposition and entanglement cannot only be used to build much faster computers. They also encrypt messages to a degree that they are, at least conceptually, unbreakable. Coupled with a powerful quantum computer, such quantum communication networks promise intelligence services with vast new capabilities for surveillance, attack and response. This raises urgent questions about democratic oversight and the governance principles of novel networks of this kind. And it darkens the outlook for champions of AI accountability and the free flow of information on the internet. 

Bits vs qubits: what’s a quantum internet and why should we care?

Digital computers, such as desktops and laptops, contain billions of tiny transistors, each represented by a ‘bit’ that is binary in that it is in either of two states, 0 (voltage off) or 1 (voltage on). These transistors are chained together to build complex circuits. A quantum computer however is not binary. Its basic unit is not a bit but a so-called qubit. Photons, electrons or trapped ions all qualify for the job. Curiously, quite unlike a bit, which is always 0 or 1 but never both, a qubit can be in more than one state, meaning that a qubit can be, loosely speaking, both 0 and 1 at the same time. Better still, several qubits can be entangled, or chained together in very specific ways so that their computational power won’t grow linearly (as it is the case with bits) but exponentially so. For instance, a single qubit in superposition can perform two calculations simultaneously, two qubits allow for four simultaneous operations, three qubits yield eight and so forth: in principle, Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore processor could perform 253 operations simultaneously, and this is quite a lot. In theory, a quantum computer of ‘only’ 300 logical qubits could thus perform 2300 operations at the same time – a figure of unimaginable magnitude. Physicists estimate that 2300 is roughly the number of all particles in the entire visible universe. 

Such a computer is unlikely to be built as error and noise levels also scale dramatically, which makes computation impossible. It therefore makes sense to build mid-range quantum computers and connect them in a super-secure way in order to provide computational resources at scale. This is what a quantum internet seeks to do. Communication between servers may be secured using the principles of ‘quantum key distribution’, which is used to exchange key pairs. The twist: in principle, this method is unbreakable as the laws of physics are such that any eavesdropper would necessarily interfere with quantum states, which wouldn’t go unnoticed.

While any communication system is only ever as secure as its weakest link, which is oftentimes human beings who purposefully or inadvertently disclose information when they shouldn’t, it’s easy to see that the promise of superfast computing and ultra-secure communication gets governments and intelligence services across the world to scramble for such systems. These networks will allow for sophisticated large-scale cyber-attacks while domestic systems can be well protected against an adversary’s response. For instance, the best available RSA encryption that is used to secure much of our online communication and banking traffic today won’t be able to withstand even early quantum machines. Therefore, whichever actor is a ‘first-mover’ in quantum communication will have considerable military and strategic advantage.

As part of its geostrategy, China has developed a significant lead in quantum communication and is proudly aiming at a novel, genuinely Chinese quantum technology that complements its strategic AI policy. Its dedicated quantum satellite Micius secures communication across vast distances. While satellite-based quantum communication poses significant challenges, China’s progress makes Western alliances such as the Five Eyes uneasy nonetheless. Efforts in Europe are picking up in pace too. In 2019, the European Commission announced the development of ‘a quantum secure communication shield across the EU that would protect our economy and society from cyber threats.’ In this newly emerging quantum arms race no state actor wants to be seen as lacking in commitment. Against the spectre of an adversary getting hold of a powerful quantum network, considerable resources are being mobilised at present to secure digital legacy systems against future quantum attacks. Post-quantum cryptography is a fast growing research field that aims to build encryption systems that even a quantum computer will find difficult to tackle. The British intelligence service GCHQ is confident that reliable quantum-secure cybersecurity systems can be standardised soon. However, a quantum-proof security protocol won’t protect against the fielding of new, hitherto unavailable computational spaces for intelligence and military research that quantum machines will afford. And with regard to civil liberties, such as freedom of expression or the right to privacy, the dawn of the quantum age doesn’t bode well.

The end of the open internet?

At this point, it is difficult to say how exactly quantum machines will upset the global balance of power. New technologies stubbornly resist following the trajectories that their inventors line out for them. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989, his goal was to make scientific research more accessible to fellow engineers. Fast-forward three decades to find the technology being used by the former President of the United States to foment unrest and violence via social media. So any overly confident projection of what quantum communication will or won’t do should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A couple of things can be said, however. Given the vast new capabilities that quantum computing and communication are likely to offer, there is little appetite among state actors to develop this technology in a collaborative and transparent fashion. To make matters worse, the gear change that quantum computing promises will only accelerate what Laura DeNardis, an internet governance scholar at the American University in Washington DC, calls the ‘turn to infrastructure’: seeking to maximise control, state actors increasingly look to the material internet hardware and mechanisms that are the physical backbone of the network of networks. The bottom-layer infrastructure of the internet itself, rather than the application spaces it affords, is the new target in state actors’ increasingly firm grip on the internet.

There is now a real risk that the internet will break up into several smaller networks such that states firmly control access and interconnection points. The effort to build an autonomous, unpluggable ‘Russianet’ is a prime case. China is pushing a similar agenda – it hopes to redesign the entire internet architecture and place a new governance model on top that is overseen by state actors rather than established in multi-leveled collaborative stakeholder interaction. The Chinese government “want[s] a technological infrastructure that gives them the absolute control which they have achieved politically, a design that matches the totalitarian impulse”, Shoshana Zuboff comments in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “So that is frightening to me and it should be frightening to every single person”.

The future: internet nationalism

The architecture, protocols and principles that hold the internet together are built on 1980s technologies. One way or another, the global internet architecture will have to be upgraded to accommodate recent advances in computing. The continuous expansion of the Internet-of-Things and the advent of quantum communication create an opportunity space for state actors to fundamentally reshape internet infrastructures and their regulatory principles. Transparency, openness and equity are anything but a priority in this high-stakes game for shaping the internet of tomorrow.

The paradigmatic shift in network architecture that newly emerging quantum technologies present will exercise further downward pressure on the free flow of information on a global and open internet. Hugely cost-intensive, quantum internet infrastructures will be pushed by states that seek to set hardware standards and protocols that benefit domestic industries and are in line with internal policy agendas.

With investment volume comes political power, which provides states with considerable bargaining opportunities to shape the internet governance models of the future.

It would be unfair to single out China in this context. For the US, quantum technologies have moved to the top of its national security agenda too in order to “ensure the continued leadership of the United States”. The diplomatic offensive that saw the UK bend to US pressure to completely ban the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei demonstrates just how much network security is entangled with national security narratives. The new European Commission, on the other hand, pushes for ‘technological sovereignty’ that seeks computational and infrastructural independence from the US and China. Old paradigms of a global, uniform network technology built on shared principles and governance models, long taken for granted, begin to dissolve. They are being successively replaced by waves of technology nationalism.

There is little doubt that quantum computing will achieve great things, from cancer research to sensing and number-crunching in physics and chemistry. Likewise, quantum communication will provide novel ways to secure the exchange of information, which will create better and more reliable information systems. For anyone concerned about civil liberties however, the risks amount to a double whammy. The prospect of intelligence services gaining access to powerful quantum network systems that will be, at least over the medium term, unavailable to the public and shielded from scrutiny, is a worry in itself. On top of that, novel quantum technologies exacerbate and accelerate the push to redesign the entire internet architecture in a way that drives the agenda of increasingly hostile state actors. From the perspective of a critical public, the regulation of future quantum systems urgently demands a quantum leap in transparency, participation and openness.

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