In 1994, a Bell Labs mathematician named Peter Shor cooked up an algorithm with frightening potential. By vastly reducing the computing resources required to factor large numbers—to break them down into their multiples, like reducing 15 to 5 and 3—Shor's algorithm threatened to upend many of our most popular methods of encryption.
Fortunately for the thousands of email providers, websites, and other secure services using factor-based encryption methods such as RSA or elliptic curve cryptography, the computer needed to run Shor's algorithm didn't exist yet.
Shor wrote it to run on quantum computers which, back in the mid-1990s, were largely theoretical devices that scientists hoped might one day outperform classical computers on a subset of complex problems.
In the decades since, huge strides have been made toward building practical quantum computers, and government and private researchers have been racing to develop new quantum-proof algorithms that will be resistant to the power of these new machines. For the last six years, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—a division of the US Department of Commerce—has been running a competition to find the algorithms that it hopes will secure our data against quantum computers. This week, it published the results.
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