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Will ‘P-bits’ Take Us Halfway to Quantum? [Encryption Digest 39]

Will ‘P-bits’ Take Us Halfway to Quantum? [Encryption Digest 39]

quantum cryptography
April 30, 2020 | Katrina Dobieski

In this issue:

  • Researchers discover an almost-quantum hybrid
  • Women broke the Nazi codes—look what they’re breaking now
  • The encryption countdown and why others can worry about it


Researchers found a new—and affordable—way to “go quantum.” At least partially. Why employ the scope of a supercomputer when a little tinkering with a University-level machine will do? [But does it work?] And, a review of the unsung female heroes credited with two-thirds of the workforce that cracked the Nazi encryption codes. From the operators at Bletchley to the CIO of a 10-Billion-dollar security company, women’s days in the hot seat of cyber warfare are far from over. And, check out why the CTO of ShieldIO says it’ll take 4-5 years to break all encryption, but he doesn’t want you to worry about it.


Will ‘P-bits’ Take Us Halfway to Quantum?

There’s regular computing, and then there’s quantum computing—but is there anything in between? Back in September of last year, researchers said there might be.

They call it a probabilistic computer, and it might be able to calculate functions typically left for a quantum computer to do—without going “full quantum.”

Mind your P's and Q's

Regular computers use ones and zeroes, quantum computers use qubits that can simultaneously be one and zero, and the probabilistic computer uses “p-bits” which can be one or zero.

The new computer uses a modified MRAM (magnetoresistive random-access memory) which uses magnetic pull to achieve alternate states of one or zero. By tinkering with the design (more here) they destabilized it enough to allow for rapid changes between the two integers, making for a very fast version of the processing power we have now.

This “probabilistic computer” cut its teeth on an integer factorization problem, typically a “quantum only” tester. While successfully factoring down large numbers (something within the realm of regular computing), the break-through nature of this machine isn’t so much in complexity, but in efficiency.

Leaner and Meaner
"On a chip, this circuit would take up the same area as a transistor, but perform a function that would have taken thousands of transistors to perform,” explains Ahmed Zeeshan Pervaiz, Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at Purdue. The project was a joint effort between Purdue and Japan’s Tohuko University.


Plus, no absolute-zero temperatures needed here. The p-bit can run with existing hardware in existing organic conditions, so it’s easier to build for the non-nation state client.

Faster, leaner, smaller and lighter—with a little more thrust and an accessible make. “You might say that a p-bit is a 'poor man's qubit’”, said Supriyo Datta, Purdue's Thomas Duncan Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Researchers predict this could radically speed machine learning and be a bridge between where we are and where we want to go. Whether it’s a creative partial solve or the discovery that will let smaller engines belly up, it’s an unexpected development in what was looking to be a cornered computing market.

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The Women Who Broke the Nazi Codes

Women, according to one source, make up 20% of the cybersecurity workforce. That’s a bit more optimistic than the 11% reported in a Forrester study.

Either way, that’s down quite a bit from the original 67% that made up the Government Code and Cipher School in World War II.

While the job of devising the ultimate Enigma code-cracker was the work of Alan Turing, it took hands to run the machines and two out of every three of them was female. One of the earliest cybersecurity units in modern history, they caught, fed and decrypted the encryption codes from the German High Command.

The Best Kept Secret

“We were breaking thousands of messages. The bombes [code cracking machines invented by Turing] never stopped. I think we broke two and a half million messages during the war," said Ruth Bourne, former bombe operator at Bletchley Park.


Other women worked in “listening stations,” tasked with intercepting the spoken Enigma codes in radio waves and sending them to Bletchley, where they would there be fed through the machines and deciphered. Accuracy was laborious, painful and essential. Operators worked in twelve hours shifts.

And, all the work was on a need-to-know basis. They knew they were “breaking German codes,” but what codes, or for whom, was never forthcoming. And, you didn’t tell.

Said one former Bletchley Park operator, Ruth Bourne, “My parents died and never knew what I was doing."

A reconstructed room at Bletchley Park

Quality over Quantity?

While the “women in tech” workforce may have dwindled percentage wise (obviously the war was an artificial boost), one positive gain is the higher quality of jobs available within the security community.

In 1945, women played integral, (though automatable) roles. Now, the landscape looks a little different.

The “Top 25 Women in Cybersecurity” list (per The Software Report) features Microsoft’s Senior Director of Cybersecurity Policy and Strategy Angela McKay, Senior Vice President and General Manager of F5’s Application Delivery Controller (ADC) business unit Kara Sprague, and Symantec’s Chief Information Officer, Sheila Jordan.

Perhaps the most telling indicators of women’s advancements in cybersecurity jobs are best revealed by the women who worked them.

In 1944, Irene Dixon operated the settings on the Colossus, Tommy Flowers’ computing wonder that broke the Lorenz-ciphers of Hitler’s inner circle. "Nobody explained it had just been invented. We didn't know that, they just said: 'This is what you're going to work on and this is what it does'."

In 2018, dynamism in the workplace characterized the reason Maggie McDonald switched her career to one in cybersecurity. "I could have stayed where I was, delivering the same thing every day, or I could go somewhere challenging and effect change. The fast-paced environment keeps me on my toes and keeps my career interesting." She is now Director of Finished Intelligence at Recorded Future.

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Why ShieldIO builds their own libraries, uses homomorphic encryption and believes we have 4-5 years before all codes are broken

Listen to Simon Bain, CTO at ShieldIO, as he discusses the staying power of current encryption standards and how homomorphic encryption (the “holy grail” of encrypting) is finding a [complicated and] compelling place in the world. And, why the big guys are getting it wrong.

Simon Bain, Founder and CTO of ShieldIO

Listen here.

Also, hear Simon discuss:

  • Why General Motors thinks they’ll eventually make more revenue from data than from cars
  • If pending government backdoor legislation violates GDPR
  • If Smart Cities will monetize your info – and if it will be licensed in cleartext


Learn what Crypto4A is doing alongside Venafi to ensure that when quantum computing arrives, quantum encryption can keep up.





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About the author

Katrina Dobieski
Katrina Dobieski

Katrina writes for Venafi's blog and helps optimize Venafi's online presence to advance awareness of Machine Identity Protection.

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