Quantum computers will break the encryption that protects the internet

Quantum computers rely on the famous weirdness of quantum mechanics to perform certain sorts of calculation far faster than any conceivable classical machine. Their fundamental unit is the “qubit”, a quantum analogue of the ones and zeros that classical machines manipulate. By exploiting the quantum-mechanical phenomena of superposition and entanglement, quantum computers can perform some forms of mathematics—though only some—far faster than any conceivable classical machine, no matter how beefy.

In 1994 Peter Shor, a mathematician then working at Bell Laboratories, in America, came up with a quick and efficient way to find a number’s prime factors. The only catch was that for large numbers his method—dubbed Shor’s algorithm—needs a quantum computer to work.

Big quantum computers will have applications in fields such as artificial intelligence and chemistry. But it is the threat posed by Shor’s algorithm that draws most public attention. Large organisations may be able to get around the problem using so-called quantum cryptography. This detects eavesdroppers in a way that cannot be countered. But it is expensive, experimental and unsuitable for the internet because it must run on a special, dedicated network. For most people, therefore, the best hope of circumventing Shor’s algorithm is to find a bit of one-way maths that does not give quantum computers an advantage.

But translating a piece of maths into usable computer code and then delivering it to the zillions of machines that will need updating will not be easy.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the information-technology industry’s obsession with novelty, the internet resembles ancient cities like Rome and Istanbul, with modern structures built atop forgotten layers of old, unmaintained code.

Read the complete article in The Economist here.

 

Advertisements

After a year of #MeToo, American opinion has shifted against victims

Oct 15th 2018 by THE DATA TEAM

ONE year ago Alyssa Milano, an American actress, posted on Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours she had received more than 500,000 responses using the hashtag “#MeToo”. Ms Milano’s tweet came days after the New York Times and New Yorker had published detailed allegations of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer. Mr Weinstein was the first in a long line of prominent entertainers and executives to be toppled by such investigations, which dominated the headlines throughout late 2017.

Even as these stories broke, it was #MeToo that resonated most on social media, as millions of women shared their experiences of abuse, intimidation and discrimination. In the past 12 months, the hashtag has been tweeted 18m times according to Keyhole, a social-media analytics company. The phrase has come to encapsulate the idea of sexual misconduct and assault. In recent months American journalists have used the hashtag in their articles more frequently than they have mentioned “sexual harassment”, according to Meltwater, a media analytics company.

Yet surveys suggest that this year-long storm of allegations, confessions and firings has actually made Americans more sceptical about sexual harassment. In the first week of November 2017, YouGov polled 1,500 Americans about their attitudes on the matter, on behalf of The Economist. In the final week of September 2018, it conducted a similar poll again. When it came to questions about the consequences of sexual assault and misconduct, there was a small but clear shift against victims.

Read the complete article on The Economist here.

The kingdom and the cover-up

WHEN AMERICA’S secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met Saudi officials in Riyadh on October 16th, they smiled, posed for photographs and talked about jet lag. They did not dwell on the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly carved up with a bone saw. Two weeks earlier Mr Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. After days of dissembling, the Saudis have dropped the pretence that he left the building that same afternoon. Few doubt that he is dead or that his fellow citizens killed him. The question is what the West ought to do about it.

To judge by Mr Pompeo’s jovial demeanour in Riyadh, both the American and Saudi governments want the issue to go away. He grinned through a meeting (pictured) with the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, and praised the Saudis for their pledge to investigate. His boss, President Donald Trump, has repeated denials from both the king and crown prince. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Mr Trump.

Even if Saudi Arabia gets through this episode without a rupture, it has done incalculable damage to its reputation. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are furious. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and Trump ally, has long supported close ties with the kingdom. But on October 16th he went on “Fox and Friends” (Mr Trump’s favourite programme) and called Prince Muhammad “a wrecking ball”, adding: “He has got to go” and “I’m gonna sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Lawmakers have already invoked the Magnitsky act, which could impose sanctions on anyone found culpable for Mr Khashoggi’s death.

America, especially under Mr Trump, has been willing to work with brutal autocrats. Unreliable autocrats may be a different matter. Prince Muhammad has a record of impulsive behaviour, from the blockade of Qatar to the abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister. His war in Yemen has turned into a lethal quagmire. The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi brings that record into sharper focus. Meanwhile, some in Washington believe that since the kingdom is no longer the world’s largest oil producer, thanks to American fracking, it need no longer be treated with kid gloves.

Read the complete article in The Economist here.

Genome Hackers Show No One’s DNA Is Anonymous Anymore

In 2013, a young computational biologist named Yaniv Erlich shocked the research world by showing it was possible to unmask the identities of people listed in anonymous genetic databases using only an Internet connection. Policymakers responded by restricting access to pools of anonymized biomedical genetic data. An NIH official said at the time, “The chances of this happening for most people are small, but they’re not zero.”

Fast-forward five years and the amount of DNA information housed in digital data stores has exploded, with no signs of slowing down. Consumer companies like 23andMe and Ancestry have so far created genetic profiles for more than 12 million people, according to recent industry estimates. Customers who download their own information can then choose to add it to public genealogy websites like GEDmatch, which gained national notoriety earlier this year for its role in leading police to a suspect in the Golden State Killer case.

Those interlocking family trees, connecting people through bits of DNA, have now grown so big that they can be used to find more than half the US population. In fact, according to new research led by Erlich, published today in Science, more than 60 percent of Americans with European ancestry can be identified through their DNA using open genetic genealogy databases, regardless of whether they’ve ever sent in a spit kit.

The takeaway is it doesn’t matter if you’ve been tested or not tested,” says Erlich, who is now the chief science officer at MyHeritage, the third largest consumer genetic provider behind 23andMe and Ancestry. “You can be identified because the databases already cover such large fractions of the US, at least for European ancestry.”

To make these estimates, Erlich and his collaborators at Columbia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzed MyHeritage’s dataset of 1.28 million anonymous individuals, which is, like most of the world’s genetic databases, overwhelmingly white. Considering each one of those individuals as a human “target,” they counted the number of relatives with big chunks of matching DNA and found that 60 percent of searches turned up a third cousin or closer. That level of relatedness was all investigators needed to track down the Golden State Killer, and the 17 other cases that have so far been solved with this approach—known to law enforcement as long-range familial searching. To validate their findings, Erlich’s team plugged 30 genetic profiles into GEDmatch and saw similar results, with 76 percent of searches netting relatives in the 3rd cousin or closer range.

Read the complete article in Wired here.

The Human Capital Project, report from the World Bank

The Human Capital Project, a global effort to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth. Why should countries invest in human capital? Can early health care and education prepare children to succeed and prosper as adults in a rapidly changing world? What are the barriers to nurturing human capital and how can countries overcome them? Find out why the World Bank, countries, and partners are coming together to try to close the massive human capital gap in the world today.

Read more about the Human Capital Project and view an interactive map here.

Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford at Mississippi rally

As hundreds of supporters cheered, Trump delivered a crude imitation of Ford from her testimony, in which she vividly described a violent sexual assault by Kavanaugh in the early 1980s but admitted that details of the time and place were lost to memory.

Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 20 women, whose allegations he has denied and dismissed. But last week he called Ford a “very credible witness” and said: “I thought her testimony was very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman to me, very fine woman.”

At his rally, the president mocked Ford’s testimony with a question-and-answer patter that brought cheers from the crowd in Southaven, Mississippi.

Is Donald Trump above the law?

For the first time, President Donald Trump faces a formal accusation that he personally broke the law to further his candidacy.

His longtime lawyer Mr Cohen told a court under oath that the money was paid “at the direction of a candidate for federal office”. In other words, that Mr Trump told Mr Cohen to break the law, then lied to cover it up.

This week’s events mean that Mr Mueller now stands on firmer ground. It will be harder for the president to dismiss him without it looking as though he is obstructing justice. And in such cases, convictions often lead to more convictions as those found guilty look for ways to save themselves. The question now is whether, and how far, Mr Manafort and Mr Cohen will turn against their former boss in return for leniency.

When voters elect someone who has bent the rules, it sets up a conflict between the courts and the electorate that is hard to resolve cleanly.

Mr Trump does not stand accused of getting his paperwork wrong, however, but of paying bribes to scotch a damaging story. That is a far more serious offense, and one that was enough to end the career of John Edwards, an aspirant Democratic presidential candidate, when he was caught doing something similar in 2008. There is no way of knowing if Mr Trump would still have won had the story come out. Even so, the possibility that he might not have done raises questions about his legitimacy, not just his observance of campaign-finance laws.

The authors of the constitution wanted to allow the president to get on with his job without unnecessary distractions. But, fresh from a war against King George III, they were very clear that the presidency should not be an elected monarchy. If a president does it, that does not make it legal. The constitutional problem that America is heading towards is that the Justice Department’s protocol not to prosecute sitting presidents dates from another age, when a president could be expected to resign with a modicum of honour before any charges were drawn up, as Nixon did. That norm no longer applies. The unwritten convention now says in effect that, if his skin is thick enough, a president is indeed above the law.

Thus far Republicans in Congress have stood by the president. The only thing likely to change that is a performance in the mid-terms so bad that enough of them come to see the president as an electoral liability.

Mr Cohen’s plea has made the president of the United States an unindicted co-conspirator in a pair of federal crimes. That makes this a sad week for America. But it is a shameful one for the Republican Party, whose members remain more dedicated to minimising Mr Trump’s malfeasance than to the ideal that nobody, not even the president, is above the law.

Read the complete article on The Economist.