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It is an inevitability that cryptographers dread: the arrival of powerful quantum computers that can break the security of the Internet. Although these devices are thought to be a decade or more away, researchers are adamant that preparations must begin now.

Computer-security specialists are meeting in Germany this week to discuss quantum-resistant replacements for today’s cryptographic systems — the protocols used to scramble and protect private information as it traverses the web and other digital networks. Although today’s hackers can, and often do, steal private information by guessing passwords, impersonating authorized users or installing malicious software on computer networks, existing computers are unable to crack standard forms of encryption used to send sensitive data over the Internet.

But on the day that the first large quantum computer comes online, some widespread and crucial encryption methods will be rendered obsolete. Quantum computers exploit laws that govern subatomic particles, so they could easily defeat existing encryption methods.

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