Chronicle of a Hacking Foretold

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The four graduate students were charged with Theft of Classified Information and Cyber-Terrorism, and they were facing life imprisonment. They had worked at MIT’s Quantum Data Encryption Laboratory, and through some series of events, the nature of which was being worked out on the witness stand, they had directed the decryption power of MIT’s quantum supercomputer at the International Bank of Shanghai and exposed the information of every business and individual affiliated with the IBS to a number of criminal hackers. The IBS had collapsed due to the data breach, and the international financial community had responded fearfully, plummeting the global economy into a year of chaos.
Once the economy had restored itself, large segments of the American public demanded that the quantum hackers be released. They claimed that the defendants’ crime was simply exposing the frailty of the world’s encryption systems, many of which were now outdated with the advent of quantum computers. And the graduate students had handed over the compromised information to the FBI as soon as they had realized the severity of their crime.
The courtroom was crowded with the press and the defendants’ families. A gangly, red-haired American boy, Ezekiel Burnham, took the defense stand. He wore an ill-fitting collared shirt that made him seem too young to be facing life imprisonment. Two of the other graduate students, Abdul Aziz and Rebecca Dupont, sat grimly beside their defense lawyer. The fourth suspect was still on the lam; as could be expected, the other three defendants had fingered him as the criminal of the group.
The hushed chatter fell silent as the prosecuting attorney began her questioning. “How did you come to work at MIT’s quantum encryption lab?”
Ezekiel cleared his throat and glanced fearfully towards his lawyer, “Well, I was getting my PhD in quantum data encoding, which is basically encoding classical data in quantum forms, like in the spin of an electron or the polarity of a photon… so that was my specialization.”
“Could you describe the events of January 6th, 2022?”
“Yeah. I mean, my story is the same as Becca and Abdul’s…We—”
“Please clarify for the court who is we.”
“Me, Becca, Abdul and Mark Drinkwater. We were hanging out after Dr. Steiner—the head researcher—had gone home. It was a Friday, so we ordered Thai food and had some beers and went over the week’s data. And I got this alert on my phone saying that my credit card had just been used at a Wal-Mart in Florida…We were talking about how common credit card fraud is, and how basically none of our information was safe. And Mark—he was always the odd man out—he was more of a wannabe hacker than an academic like the rest of us… He pointed out that with our 1,024-qubit supercomputer we could brute force many of the world’s encrypted data systems. It started out as a joke, but a few moments later Mark had busted out his laptop and was feeding the quantum computer blocks of cipher text, which turned out to have come from IBS. Abdul was worried, and he left at that point. The rest of us wanted to prove that times had changed… so we decided to attempt a modified brute force attack on the cipher text using Grover’s algorithm, which is basically—”
The lawyer interrupted, “Just the story, no need for technical explanation. So Mark Drinkwater suggested the idea, and initiated the process. How did Mark Drinkwater get a block of encrypted data from IBS?”
“I don’t know.”
“Any guess?”
“To be honest, no…it’s not impossible that Mark already had the cipher text. He was into hacking, like I said.”
“Ok. So you, Rebecca Dupont and Mark Drinkwater decided to use one of the most advanced quantum computers ever built to decode an international bank’s secret financial information?” The prosecuting attorney glanced towards the jury with raised eyebrows. Rebecca Dupont cringed.
Ezekiel laughed nervously, “Well… that sounds bad, but we weren’t thinking of it like that. I was thinking: what about in five years when more universities have supercomputers like this, and anyone with the know-how could attack our most precious digital information. Nobody would be safe. We were just exposing that the times have changed...”
The lawyer shrugged, “Perhaps this exposure would have been better left to the intelligence agencies.”
“I guess so…Anyway, I ended up staying there all night, and around 5:00am the supercomputer printed out plaintext, which looked like bank routing numbers and phone numbers. Mark and I lived in the same building so I brought the plaintext to his apartment, but he wasn’t there. It turned out he had left in the middle of the night and probably fled the country. On reflection, I’m sure Mark sold access to the decrypted information. Nobody knows to whom he sold it, but by that afternoon there were major security breaches at IBS. I went to Becca’s house, and we sent the decoded documents to the FBI. As you know, we were arrested later that day.”
“Could you explain to the jury why you don’t consider this a crime?”
“I mean…it was illegal. And bad things happened because of what we did. But the New York Times published a story about the case, and they stated that many of the weaker encryption methods that the public used were insufficient now that quantum computers exist.”
The prosecuting attorney looked unimpressed. Stammering, with a glance up at the judge, Ezekiel went on, “Let’s imagine if thirty years ago the global economy was completely built on fossil fuels, and a group of scientists proved that fossil fuels were destroying the environment. And let’s imagine that everybody refused to use fossil fuels, crashing the global economy that was based on their use. Would you charge those scientists with a crime for inadvertently crashing the economy?”
The jurors murmured uncertainly to each other.

About the Author: 
S.C. Anderson is a novelist and screenwriter based in NYC.