If any encrypted data could be decoded within a day (or shorter, to the point of hours, given enough computing power and weak encryption), all wireless transmissions may be intercepted, and all copper/fiber cables in networks may be tapped, what effects would that have on daily life in a digitally-connected world, and how would people live with it?

For background, this idea came up as a moderately hard-ish science explanation for why courier transport of documents and data-containing devices (flash/hard drives etc.), and face-to-face meetings would make sense in a cyberpunk-style megacity.

A few things I've considered based on the premise:

  • Airgapping any critical system/intranet, thus the reliance on physical transfers for secure communications. (Anything implanted inside one's head is a very 'critical system', so I don't think anyone would go for a wifi/bluetooth-enabled implant. I may be wrong.)

  • Electronic banking being done via One-Time Pad encrypted transactions, where even if a transmission is decrypted after the fact, it only gives information about what the transaction was (parties, amount, etc.), but not the information necessary to spoof the next transaction. This would necessitate physically visiting the local bank to get new one-time codes every so often. (Like getting a new book of paper checks.)

  • For networked systems, a focus on intrusion prevention via blocking ports completely and lockout after very few attempts, rather than the encryption/token based trust systems of today such as SSL, ADFS, PGP, etc. Probably compartmentalizing at an OS level even more than modern OSs, so any process that has a network connection is effectively sandboxed from the rest of the device ('hard drive'/permanent storage write access, particularly) to the point of almost being on a virtual machine, until it gives up that connection and somehow proves it hasn't been subverted. I'm a bit fuzzy on what evidence would fly with that court, but it would definitely be a 'guilty until proven innocent' lawbook in front of a hanging judge.

  • For individuals - Security Through Obscurity, and maybe just apathy. Out of the millions of people out there, what are the chances 'they' are cracking open and decrypting your packets in particular? Or even care about the fact that those are your packets? Or care about you?

  • For people who actually have things to hide that anyone tapping in may be interested in - not mentioning any information that would be relevant within an hour (the usual shortest decryption period for audio, but much shorter for text), but probably using burner devices. (Another reason to not get a smartphone in your head.)

What could a general society be like in this world, where any idiot 'hacker' with a radio antenna nearby might be seeing everything you text within a few hours, depending on his decryption software?

Main questions:

  • How would social media (both consumers using it and the companies providing it) look in that digital environment?

  • What alternate ideas are there to preserve security in such a world?

  • How would the the normal people within this setting be impacted? The ones not out there on motorcycles or bashing faces in with cybernetic arms. Maybe more "if you knew nothing you sent over the internet was secure for more than a couple hours, how would your life change?"

I'm not sure if the question is too broadly defined for here, but I'm looking mostly for ideas on "how would this look in 'civilian' life?"

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    $\begingroup$ The concept reminds me of Johnny Mnemonic as that's cyberpunk with couriers carrying top secret information in their heads $\endgroup$
    – Geneworm
    Nov 7, 2018 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ "what are the chances 'they' are cracking open and decrypting your packets in particular?" Given the computing power available to governments and AWS... it's bordering on 100%. "Or even care about the fact that those are your packets? Or care about you?" They care about you if you're rich, or have associations with criminal, subversive, terrorist, etc organizations. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Nov 7, 2018 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ OP is asking too many questions at once. You should split your question into 3(at least), as each of your main points are full questions on their own $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2018 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ If there is computing power to hack stuff in 2 hours, why wasn't that same computing power used to improve encryption? There is a constant and race between hackers and cyber security, and I believe computing power is the only limit on both sides. $\endgroup$
    – Bald Bear
    Nov 7, 2018 at 4:56

2 Answers 2


In terms of the individual, we already have security by obscurity and apathy; just look at Facebook as an example. It still amazes me that the same people who scream about the rights of the individual to privacy in front of government officials are prepared to put so much information about themselves online.

As for government computer systems, many sensitive ones are already airgapped; in a post-encryption world, more would be and ultimately all that would happen is that government (and most other office) workers would lose the convenience of the internet to the desktop. Also, USB stick feeds would be set to read only to pull information in (this is already the case in most large private sector and government networks) but not let information or data out.

The real changes in this society would be the loss of the convenience of being able to do business over the internet, including banking.

Business adopt internet services for one simple reason; it's efficient. What this really means is cheaper for the company or organisation. Banks open less branches (in some cases none), retail outlets become fewer as the warehouse becomes the distribution hub to both retail stores AND internet based customers, and services, account mgt, bill paying et al are far cheaper the fewer buildings and people needed between the consumer and the company's bank account.

The problem with your model is that while internet services are still efficient, they're no longer effective.

Ebay went through a similar situation two decades ago. Lots of scammers were just offering products that they had no intention of selling. At one point I read an article that was saying as many as 1 in 5 transactions were not resulting in the goods being delivered to the purchaser. Ebay was saying (at the time) that it wasn't their problem; they were just there to provide the brokering service and that if some people turned out to be dodgy, it wasn't their fault.

Customers started avoiding the platform in droves.

So, Ebay changed its tune, bought Paypal, and started offering the equivalent of insurance on purchases paid for through paypal. If your goods didn't get delivered, they'd refund your purchase price. Motivated to keep those costs down, Ebay has now pushed back on merchants to ensure that such situations are kept to a minimum by enforcing codes of conduct on their platform for people wanting to sell.

In a post-encryption world, Ebay is dead. So is internet banking, electronic bill paying, etc. This is because the transactions now lack the one crucial attribute that makes them effective;


Without that, it doesn't matter how cheap the internet service is, it doesn't work. As a result, banks and companies would (at great expense) go back to tried and true methods of commerce.

You'd find more bricks and mortar branches opening up, credit cards would go back to paper slips, and things like cash would re-emerge as a primary conduit for commercial activity. In other words, people who want to do business with you will set up channels for that business that you as a customer can trust.

Ultimately, during the transition there will be a lot of chaos. Some companies will fold completely. Some will curtail their operations to certain territories or customer segments. Most will forego years of profit to reinvest in more expensive customer channels like stores. ALL will no longer make the kinds of profits that the internet allows. Therefore, you can expect the stock exchange to tank for decades while business find their equilibrium again, and any company that even hints that it has a solution to the post-encryption problem will receive heavy investment, spawning a whole new bubble in the stock market similar to what the internet did back in the 90's.

The average millennial will find the lack of convenience almost intolerable, but keep posting their lunch on facebook like they always have.

The average GenX-er will remember the old ways and adapt, but will miss the convenience factor (although not as much as the millennials will).

The next wave of researchers will focus on new forms of encryption as it will represent the next big thing in terms of potential business sale price. Startups in that space will be numerous and in the end, they'll find a way to solve the problem through sheer brute force if it comes down to that. Which of course means that the aberration may well only be temporary.

In any event, people will have to get used to writing cheques again and seeing their credit card pressed against a carbon paper slip, because commerce over the internet is no longer possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you. Apparently, as a new user I can't vote you up, but the sort of societal change you're talking about creates exactly the kind of society where paying an idiot to ride a motorcycle through town to carry data makes sense - as intended. I still think a "come into your local bank branch for the next set of one-time codes" system might work in such a scenario, but you're hitting nails on the head I hadn't even thought of. $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2018 at 1:23

Actually, there are already digital security systems that don't rely on encryption. (They still use encryption, mind you, adding more levels of security). But the end of encryption would mainly just make online shopping and banking more of a nusience. Here's some examples:

Passcode keyfobs... to dumb it down, there's a list of millions of passwords on a thumb-drive. Each is single-use. Any activity requires a code attached to it to function, and match what's on the list for the next transaction (or tied to a certain time/date). Just means an extra hardware piece that needs to be replaced regularly.

Fake data: Preplanned fake data can be passed, to see if it's intercepted and/or modified. If not, it gives higher faith in the pathway used.

Quantum Tunnelling Computing: Only military can afford this in modern day. But basically the data goes from point A to point B without passing any point inbetween. No risk of interception if there's nothing to intercept.

Double Authentication: Basically, send a secondary message along an unrelated route to confirm a transaction or message. Unencrypted cash transfer, and then a phonecall to confirm.

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    $\begingroup$ Links? "Quantum Tunnelling Computing" does not sound like a real phenomenon. It sounds like grave misunderstanding of quantum encryption and quantum entanglement. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Nov 7, 2018 at 11:36

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