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An Interview with Amy Hill

Cryptography, Quantum Computing, and the Importance of Diversity in Technology and Security: An Interview by Girl Security Founder Lauren Buitta and Amy Hill, Girl Security Member (age 18)

Lauren: Amy, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on this extremely complex topic. Before we delve into the substance, tell us a little bit about yourself, your interests, and how you found Girl Security?

Amy: I’m a student living in England. I have just finished my A-levels, where I got 5 A* and a distinction, and I’m about to start a bachelors degree in mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Ever since I was young I have had a passion for maths; at nursery I once proudly told the teacher the number of boys and girls there were sitting in the circle. My interest in cryptography started properly when I was in year 12 and read “The Codebook” by Simon Singh. While reading it, I realised that this was an amazing application of mathematics and the career I wanted to pursue. I was first introduced to Girl Security when my head of year recommended me for the Girl Security UK outreach weekend. I absolutely loved meeting the team and doing the different simulations we worked through. From there I signed up for the mentoring programme and started attending the talks/events Girl Security hosted/attended; even if it did mean staying up until 1am with school the next day!

L: I spend a lot of time talking about national security with my 7 and 9 year-olds, which is terrific exercise in keeping things simple and accessible. To start us off, how would you define “cryptography” and “quantum computing” for an audience new to these topics?

A: In essence, cryptography is the making and breaking of codes. That’s the definition I use when people ask me what I want to do when I’m older. I also say that modern cryptography is what we use to keep our credit card numbers safe when using them online. Through history, cryptography has gradually become more and more mathematical. In the olden days, people hired linguists to help them create codes to send or crack codes they have received. Nowadays, those roles are filled by mathematicians, computer scientists and cyber security experts, using technology to create ever more complex encryption and decryption methods. To define quantum computing, we must first define computing. Computing is the action of performing algorithms (chains of instructions) mechanically. All technology, from ovens to toasters and smart phones to TVs use computing systems. Quantum computing is still about performing algorithms mechanically, but it exploits the weird nature of quantum particles (the tiny bits of “stuff” that we’re made of) to speed up the process. This can happen because quantum particles can simultaneously exist in an infinite number of different states, whereas the normal particles can only exist in one state.

L: The history of cryptography is pretty interesting. Is there one historical turning point that you most enjoy revisiting in your studies (a.k.a, “Nerding out”)?

A: Being a mathematician, my favourite part of cryptography to nerd out about is the discovery of asymmetric cryptography, because it truly cemented the shift from cryptography being a linguists’ game to being a mathematicians’ game. Asymmetric cryptography, which is more commonly known as public key cryptography, is an encryption/decryption system where the key used to encrypt the message is different to the key used to decrypt the message. The mathematics behind the system is based on modular arithmetic and is an extremely interesting and useful branch of maths. I also love that Clifford Cocks, while working at GCHQ, figured this elegant solution out to the key distribution problem, but didn’t actually realise the significance of his discovery; luckily his supervisor did. I also love this turning point because it highlights one flaw of national security, classifying discoveries because they might be of use to that country’s government. Asymmetric cryptography was independently rediscovered by an American team (Rivest, Shamir and Adleman), who were able to publish their findings. This meant that the RSA (after their names) algorithm became famous, while Cocks’ and his British colleagues had to watch in silence until the documents were declassified nearly 25 years later.

L: How would you characterize the threat quantum computing poses to encryption and to security more broadly?

A: The threat is definitely a serious one. There is no way around it. Once quantum computing is a usable technology, there will be a serious shift in the encryption systems used. This is mainly because public key encryption, which is the main infrastructure upon which the entire security of online communication systems, will no longer be secure once quantum computing becomes a reality. Public key encryption is a method which can only be broken by brute force; by using large enough numbers, the encryption system is completely secure against the brute force capabilities of modern technology, meaning it can be used by the general public to keep their data perfectly secure. Unfortunately quantum technology will have exponentially greater brute force capabilities, meaning quantum computers will theoretically be able to decrypt messages that are encrypted with public key cryptography. This is probably the biggest threat that comes with the introduction of quantum technology. However, there is a slight sense of history repeating itself. When computers were first invented, their processing capabilities made the encryption system used at that time insecure. This meant that a new encryption system was needed and, subsequently, there was a new one created and installed. Hopefully, a new encryption system that is secure against quantum computers can be successfully installed into mainstream use before the widespread distribution of quantum computers.

L: I appreciated your emphasis on ethics in your paper. Ethical decision making is central to Girl Security’s workforce training, as you know. What is your primary concern regarding the ethical implications on quantum computing?

That criminals will be able to use the advanced decryption abilities of quantum computing to harm vulnerable people, before the equivalent encryption abilities of the technology can be used to keep people’s data private. I’m concerned that with the introduction of technology, governments’ legislatures will not be updated in time to protect people’s private data from being harvested by criminals/multinational corporations. I am also worried that, with the potential of a completely secure, unbreakable encryption system, criminals will be able to communicate with each other without being traced/spied on, potentially leading to a rise in organised crime.

L: If you would, can you share some insights about your experience as a girl and now young woman entering this historically-male dominated STEM+ field (I added a + because it cuts across so many sectors!). Do you have role models? Are you often one of few women in your classes?

A: I have definitely always been in the minority in the classrooms, and as a girl, I was regularly compared to the boys in the class. However, it has actually been a really positive experience for me. I’ve grown up in a household where we were allowed to pursue whatever interest we had; my dad has a PhD in physics and my mum has a masters degree in pharmacy, so there was a natural interest in STEM from a young age. My parents would make sure we regularly visited museums, castles and other educational places, but my favourite was always the Science museum in London. In school, there were always lots of outreach programmes that I attended aimed at getting women into STEM. I have always been academically talented and consistently beat my male classmates in exams. This meant that I was never really told that I didn’t belong there, and was instead asked if I could help them with their homework or with the topic they were stuck on. Going into university, I know that I will be in the minority in my classes, but I also know that I deserve to be there and I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise. My main role model has always been Alan Turing, because he was on the team that cracked the Enigma code but was also an incredibly talented mathematician. I have always loved how he continued to work on his idea to crack the Enigma code, even when he was told by nearly everyone that it wouldn’t work. My other role models are the female spies from the 17th century who actually used their gender to their advantage. There is a great number of women, many of whom are yet to be identified, that used their “invisibility” of being a women to remain inconspicuous when spying; to the point that some actually got away with it after being caught because the men refused to believe that a woman was capable of doing more than raising children and washing. They are my role models because, rather than be put down by the sexism they faced, they actually used it to their advantage.

L: When you’re not dominating quantum computing, what are other activities that bring you fulfillment?

A: Too many! I volunteer with GirlGuiding UK as a fully qualified unit leader for Rainbows (aged 5-7) and Brownies (aged 8-10). I am also a peer educator with GirlGuiding, delivering sessions about topics on the forefront of society such as gender stereotypes and mental health, as well as being the peer education coordinator for my county. I play the keyboard and flute and have singing lessons. I am a keen actor, dancer and singer, regularly taking part in classes and productions. My claim to fame is that I was once a junior soloist in the opera Carmen. I also work part time at the circus, helping at children’s parties and doing performances and fire shows. In the last few years, I have had special circus training and can now juggle fire and knives, eat fire, body burn (not as dangerous as it sounds) and perform fire poi and fire staff routines. On top of this, I love to bejewel shoes with sequins in geometric patterns.