iPhone: Apple iMessage gets major update ahead of ‘quantum apocalypse’

iPhone: Apple iMessage gets major update ahead of ‘quantum apocalypse’

Apple will release one of its most significant security updates ever in an attempt to address the “quantum apocalypse”.

The new iMessage update will keep messages safe even after the advent of quantum computing, the iPhone maker says.

At the moment, messaging platforms secure their messages using classical cryptography, which ensures that only the sender and recipient of a text is able to read it. That works by relying on difficult mathematical problems that cannot be solved by computers.

However, computer scientists believe that the coming decades could bring the creation of quantum computers, which might have the power to answer those previously unsolvable mathematical puzzles. That could allow those messages to be cracked open and read by anyone who can intercept them.

Experts have referred to that event as the “quantum apocalypse”. While quantum computers are being developed for their potentially transformative uses in everything from healthcare to artificial intelligence, researchers have also been working to avert the dangerous scenario that could result from them being able to break through that encryption.

Even though such quantum computers may be decades away, experts warn that it is important to ensure that security systems are safe now. That is in part because of “harvest now, decrypt later” attacks, in which attackers may steal and store encrypted data until it is possible to read it with quantum computers.

Security researchers have since been working on technology known as post-quantum cryptography, or PQC. That uses new algorithms that cannot be beaten by quantum computers but which can still be run on and protect messages on today’s classical computers.

Apple’s response to that concern is what it calls PQ3. It has required completely redesigning the protocol that keeps iMessage conversations safe, Apple said, and it claimed it will give the platform the strongest security systems of any large messaging platform.

The new system is already rolling out in iMessage in beta releases, and it will come to public versions of the software on the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Watch later this year. By the end of the year, PQ3 will replace the existing protocol in all supported conversations, Apple said.

Initially it will be introduced with iMessage. But Apple indicated that the same technology will roll out to the other parts of its services that rely on encryption to keep data secure.

Apple announced the details of PQ3 in a long post on its security blog. It also shared information on the technology with academics, and supported a paper written by the University of Waterloo’s Douglas Stebila who affirmed that the new system should keep messages safe “against both classical and quantum adversaries”.

Other companies, such as Google, have been working on similar updates to mitigate the threat that quantum computing poses to security tools. Many of those updates are a result of work done by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, which has been leading work to build new kinds of encryption that are safe from attacks from both quantum and classical computing.

While experts have been concerned about post-quantum cryptography for decades, NIST helped begin the recent work when in 2015 it announced a new project to standardise new security technologies that could resist attacks from quantum computers. In 2022, it announced it had selected four new systems, and technology companies have been working to integrate them since,