The security of Bitcoin, and other blockchain technologies, rests on the strength of cryptographic systems that would take classical computers an eternity to crack. But quantum computing, with its vastly superior computational power, threatens to change that forever. While today's quantum computers are not yet advanced enough to pose a real danger, the trajectory of development raises important questions. What happens if quantum computers reach a point where they can break Bitcoin’s cryptography? How vulnerable is the world's most prominent cryptocurrency, and what steps can be taken to safeguard it?

Bitcoin’s cryptography is based on a system called **elliptic curve cryptography (ECC)**. This type of cryptography relies on the **elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem (ECDLP)**, which is notoriously hard for classical computers to solve. The process of generating a Bitcoin public key from a private key is straightforward, but reversing this operation—going from public key to private key—is practically impossible with the computational power we have today.

In simple terms, it would take a classical computer an absurdly long time—millions of years—to crack a Bitcoin key using brute force methods. This is why Bitcoin is considered secure today. However, **quantum computers** bring an entirely new level of computational power that classical computers simply can't match.

The threat to Bitcoin from quantum computers comes from **Shor’s algorithm**, a quantum algorithm that can efficiently solve problems like the **discrete logarithm problem** and **integer factorization**. Both of these are foundational to the cryptographic systems that Bitcoin relies on.

In practice, Shor’s algorithm would allow a sufficiently powerful quantum computer to derive a Bitcoin private key from its public key in a **polynomial time**—something that classical computers could only do in an infeasible, exponentially long timeframe. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how quantum computers could theoretically crack Bitcoin:

**Quantum Computer Reads Public Key**: Once someone initiates a Bitcoin transaction, their public key becomes visible on the blockchain. A quantum computer can then read this public key.**Apply Shor’s Algorithm**: Using Shor’s algorithm, the quantum computer solves the elliptic curve discrete logarithm problem, effectively reversing the process that generated the public key, thus revealing the associated private key.**Take Control**: With the private key in hand, the attacker can sign transactions and steal Bitcoin, posing a serious threat to the network's security.

While the potential threat of quantum computing is alarming, it’s crucial to understand that quantum computers today aren’t nearly powerful enough to execute Shor’s algorithm on a scale necessary to break Bitcoin’s cryptography.

**Qubits and Error Rates**: Quantum computers operate with**qubits**, which represent quantum bits that can be in multiple states at once, unlike classical bits that are either 0 or 1. Today’s quantum computers are in the range of**50 to 100 qubits**, which is far too few to crack ECC. Additionally, qubits are highly sensitive to errors due to environmental interference (a phenomenon called quantum decoherence), and we are still developing the error correction techniques needed for stable quantum computations.**Error Correction**: Error correction is key to quantum computation on a large scale. It’s estimated that a quantum computer would need**millions of physical qubits**just to generate a few thousand stable, error-corrected qubits. This is because quantum computers require redundancy in their qubit calculations to account for the inherent errors in quantum states.

Given these hurdles, experts estimate we are at least **10-30 years away** from a quantum computer capable of breaking Bitcoin’s cryptography.

The good news is that quantum computing isn’t a surprise, and the cryptographic community has been actively researching **quantum-resistant cryptography** (also known as **post-quantum cryptography**). These algorithms are designed to be secure against both classical and quantum attacks. Some of the most promising quantum-resistant techniques include:

**Lattice-Based Cryptography**: One of the leading candidates for quantum-resistant cryptography, lattice-based schemes rely on problems that quantum computers are not expected to solve easily, such as the**Learning With Errors (LWE)**problem. Algorithms like**Kyber**and**NTRU**are lattice-based systems already being considered for widespread adoption.**Hash-Based Signatures**: Cryptographic systems like**SPHINCS+**use hash functions to create secure digital signatures that are resistant to quantum attacks. Although hash-based systems are not suitable for encryption, they are highly effective for digital signatures.**Code-Based Cryptography**: This approach, exemplified by systems like**McEliece**, is built on the hardness of decoding a random linear code, a problem quantum computers struggle with.**Isogeny-Based Cryptography**: This emerging field leverages the difficulty of finding isogenies (special maps between elliptic curves) and offers compact key sizes and strong security. While still in its early stages,**SIKE (Supersingular Isogeny Key Encapsulation)**is a promising isogeny-based system.**Multivariate Cryptography**: This method involves solving systems of multivariate polynomial equations, which are considered hard problems even for quantum computers.

The Bitcoin network could adopt these **quantum-resistant cryptographic techniques** in the future. Implementing such changes would require a network-wide upgrade, which might be done via a **soft fork** or **hard fork**. Transitioning to quantum-safe algorithms will be a significant challenge, but it is not impossible.

Another approach to mitigating the quantum threat is to limit the exposure of public keys. Currently, when a Bitcoin transaction is made, the public key is revealed before the transaction is confirmed. One proposed defense mechanism is to adopt a system where public keys are only revealed **after** transactions are fully confirmed, reducing the window of vulnerability.

Experts project that it will take anywhere from **10 to 30 years** for quantum computers to reach the level of sophistication necessary to crack Bitcoin. This timeline gives the cryptographic and blockchain communities ample time to prepare for the quantum era.

Quantum computers hold immense potential, but they also represent a serious threat to existing cryptographic systems. Bitcoin, which relies on elliptic curve cryptography, is not immune to this risk. However, with active research into **quantum-resistant algorithms** and a roadmap for transitioning to these algorithms in the future, the Bitcoin network can evolve to meet the quantum challenge.

For now, Bitcoin is safe—but preparing for a quantum future is critical to ensuring that it remains secure in the decades to come.≤

**Lexi Shield**: A tech-savvy strategist with a sharp mind for problem-solving, Lexi specializes in data analysis and digital security. Her expertise in navigating complex systems makes her the perfect protector and planner in high-stakes scenarios.

**Chen Osipov**: A versatile and hands-on field expert, Chen excels in tactical operations and technical gadgetry. With his adaptable skills and practical approach, he is the go-to specialist for on-ground solutions and swift action.

Lexi Shield & Chen Osipov

**Lexi Shield**: A tech-savvy strategist with a sharp mind for problem-solving, Lexi specializes in data analysis and digital security. Her expertise in navigating complex systems makes her the perfect protector and planner in high-stakes scenarios.

**Chen Osipov**: A versatile and hands-on field expert, Chen excels in tactical operations and technical gadgetry. With his adaptable skills and practical approach, he is the go-to specialist for on-ground solutions and swift action.

Published date: 9/18/2024