Singapore experts to consult on quantum security of cryptocurrency

The researchers co-authored a white paper assessing the threat quantum computers pose.

Dr Miklos Santha (left) and Assoc Prof Troy Lee (right), Principal Investigators at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore, and collaborators are providing advice on the quantum security of cryptocurrencies.
Dr Miklos Santha (left) and Assoc Prof Troy Lee (right), Principal Investigators at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore, and collaborators are providing advice on the quantum security of cryptocurrencies. Credit:Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at the National University of Singapore (NUS)

Researchers from the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have been retained as consultants on the security of cryptocurrency.

The market for such digital currencies, which began with Bitcoin in 2009, is currently worth over US$150 billion.

Associate Professor Troy Lee and Dr. Miklos Santha, Principal Investigators at CQT, will advise cryptocurrency provider Hcash on how to protect the company’s digital currency against future attacks by quantum computers. Its currency Hshare has a market capitalisation of over US$300 million as of 3 November.

“It’s important for anyone who protects their data or money with cryptography to be prepared for quantum computers. I am very excited to be working with Hcash, which is taking quantum security seriously and building it into the design of its coin,” says Assoc Prof Lee.

The scientists will consult for Hyperchain, which provides technical services to Hcash, along with collaborators Assoc Prof Gavin Brennen from Macquarie University, Sydney and Dr. Marco Tomamichel from the University of Technology Sydney. They offer expertise in cryptography and quantum computing.

Assoc Prof Lee and Dr. Santha are both Principal Investigators at CQT, NUS. Assoc Prof Lee is also at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Dr. Santha at the French national research organisation CNRS.

The researchers began discussions with Hcash as they worked on a detailed analysis of the threat that quantum computers will pose to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. That analysis, completed on 28 October, is now available as a white paper “Quantum attacks on Bitcoin, and how to protect against them” at https://arxiv.org/abs/1710.10377.

Today’s small quantum computers are not a risk, but the industry is moving fast. Companies including IBM and Google are rapidly increasing the size of their machines. Algorithms already exist that, if run on big enough quantum computers, will crack many of today’s cryptography schemes.

In the white paper, the researchers estimate the speed of the quantum algorithms and project developments in quantum computing technology to put a timeline on when cryptocurrencies could become insecure – warning that the signature scheme used by Bitcoin could be broken within a decade.

The signature scheme verifies ownership of digital coins. The team also analysed the ‘proof-of-work’ step used to record Bitcoin transactions, concluding that quantum computers are unlikely to undermine this in the near term.

The Bitcoin signature scheme is based on ‘elliptic curve’ cryptography that a quantum computer could crack using Shor’s algorithm. If a signature is cracked, the hacker can spend the coins, stealing them from the rightful owner.

“The main quantum bottleneck is having a quantum computer with enough qubits to run Shor’s algorithm on the scheme used by Bitcoin. We estimate it would take about 500 thousand to 1 million qubits. By the most optimistic estimates, in 10 years the signature scheme of Bitcoin could be cracked in under 10 minutes by a quantum computer,” explains Assoc Prof Lee. Other cryptocurrencies that use similar security schemes will be vulnerable, too.

In the white paper, the team reviews alternative signature schemes proposed as quantum-safe. The researchers’ work for Hcash will include recommending specific protocols to incorporate to achieve quantum security.