In the ancient world, they used cubits as an important data unit, but the new data unit of the future is the qubit — the quantum bits that will change the face of computing.

Quantum bits are the basic units of information in quantum computing, a new type of computer in which particles like electrons or photons can be utilized to process information, with both “sides” (polarizations) acting as a positive or negative (i.e. the zeros and ones of traditional computer processing) alternatively or at the same time.

According to experts, quantum computers will be able to create breakthroughs in many of the most complicated data processing problems, leading to the development of new medicines, building molecular structures and doing analysis going far beyond the capabilities of today’s binary computers.

The elements of quantum computing have been around for decades, but it’s only in the past few years that a commercial computer that could be called “quantum” has been built by a company called D-Wave. Announced in January, the D-Wave 2000Q can “solve larger problems than was previously possible, with faster performance, providing a big step toward production applications in optimization, cybersecurity, machine learning and sampling.”

IBM recently announced that it had gone even further — and that it expected that by the end of 2017 it would be able to commercialize quantum computing with a 50-qubit processor prototype, as well as provide online access to 20-qubit processors. IBM’s announcement followed the September Microsoft announcement of a new quantum computing programming language and stable topological qubit technology that can be used to scale up the number of qubits.

Taking advantage of the physical “spin” of quantum elements, a quantum computer will be able to process simultaneously the same data in different ways, enabling it to make projections and analyses much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible.

There are significant physical issues that must be worked out, such as the fact that quantum computers can only operate at cryogenic temperatures (at 250 times colder than deep space) — but Intel, working with Netherlands firm QuTech, is convinced that it is just a matter of time before the full power of quantum computing is unleashed.

“Our quantum research has progressed to the point where our partner QuTech is simulating quantum algorithm workloads, and Intel is fabricating new qubit test chips on a regular basis in our leading-edge manufacturing facilities,” said Dr. Michael Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs. “Intel’s expertise in fabrication, control electronics and architecture sets us apart and will serve us well as we venture into new computing paradigms, from neuromorphic to quantum computing.”

The difficulty in achieving a cold enough environment for a quantum computer to operate is the main reason they are still experimental, and can only process a few qubits at a time — but the system is so powerful that even these early quantum computers are shaking up the world of data processing. On the one hand, quantum computers are going to be a boon for cybersecurity, capable of processing algorithms at a speed unapproachable by any other system.

By looking at problems from all directions — simultaneously — a quantum computer could discover anomalies that no other system would notice, and project to thousands of scenarios where an anomaly could turn into a security risk. Like with a top-performing supercomputer programmed to play chess, a quantum-based cybersecurity system could see the “moves” an anomaly could make later on — and quash it on the spot.

The National Security Agency, too, has sounded the alarm on the risks to cybersecurity in the quantum computing age.

“Quantum computing will definitely be applied anywhere where we’re using machine learning, cloud computing, data analysis. In security that [means] intrusion detection, looking for patterns in the data, and more sophisticated forms of parallel computing,” according to Kevin Curran, a cybersecurity researcher at Ulster University and IEEE senior member.

But the computing power that gives cyber-defenders super-tools to detect attacks can be misused, as well. Last year, scientists at MIT and the University of Innsbruck were able to build a quantum computer with just five qubits, conceptually demonstrating the ability of future quantum computers to break the RSA encryption scheme.

That ability to process the zeros and ones at the same time means that no formula based on a mathematical scheme is safe. The MIT/Innsbruck team is not the only one to have developed cybersecurity-breaking schemes, even on these early machines; the problem is significant enough that representatives of NIST, Toshiba, Amazon, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel and some of the top academics in the cybersecurity and mathematics worlds met in Toronto for the yearly Workshop on Quantum-Safe Cryptography last year.

The National Security Agency, too, has sounded the alarm on the risks to cybersecurity in the quantum computing age. The NSA’s “Commercial National Security Algorithm Suite and Quantum Computing FAQ” says that “many experts predict a quantum computer capable of effectively breaking public key cryptography” within “a few decades,” and that the time to come up with solutions is now.

According to many experts, the NSA is far too conservative in its prediction; many experts believe that the timeline is more like a decade to a decade and a half, while others believe that it could happen even sooner.

And given the leaps in progress that are being made on almost a daily process, a commercially viable quantum computer offering cloud services could happen even more quickly; the D-Wave 2000Q is called that because it can process 2,000 qubits. That kind of power in the hands of hackers makes possible all sorts of scams that don’t even exist yet.

For example, forward-looking hackers could begin storing encrypted information now, awaiting the day that fast, cryptography-breaking quantum computing-based algorithms are developed. While there’s a possibility that the data in those encrypted files might be outdated, there is likely to be more than enough data for hackers to use in various identity theft schemes, among other things.

It’s certain that the threats to privacy and information security will only multiply in the coming decades.

In fact, why wait? Hackers are very well-funded today, and it certainly wouldn’t be beyond their financial abilities to buy a quantum computer and begin selling encryption-busting services right now. It’s likely that not all the cryptography-breaking algorithms will work on all data, at least for now — this is a threat-in-formation — but chances are that at least some of them will, meaning that even now, cyber-criminals could utilize the cryptography-breaking capabilities of quantum computers, and perhaps sell those services to hackers via the Dark Web.

That NSA document that predicted “decades” before quantum computers become a reality was written at the beginning of 2016, which shows how much progress has been made in barely a year and a half. The solution lies in the development of quantum-safe cryptography, consisting of information theoretically secure schemes, hash-based cryptography, code-based cryptography and exotic-sounding technologies like lattice-based cryptography, multivariate cryptography (like the “Unbalanced Oil and Vinegar scheme”), and even supersingular elliptic curve isogeny cryptography.

These, and other post-quantum cryptography schemes, will have to involve “algorithms that are resistant to cryptographic attacks from both classical and quantum computers,” according to the NSA. Whatever the case, it’s certain that the threats to privacy and information security will only multiply in the coming decades, and that data encryption will proceed in lockstep with new technological advances.