The Quantum Computing Threat and New Cryptographic Standards on the Horizon
April 13, 2021
As both a founder and Oxford University research fellow, I’ve witnessed the rising amount of interest and research on quantum computers in both the private and public sectors, over the last five years.
Quantum computing promises countless benefits to many industries, from pharmaceuticals to financial services, through their ability to exploit quantum mechanical phenomena and solve mathematical problems that would be impossible for today's classical computers.
During this flurry of innovation, there has been a sea of change in attitudes towards the difficulty of actually building large, practical quantum computers. Now, it is merely considered a significant and complex engineering problem rather than a physical impossibility. Some of the most bullish companies in the field are now claiming that commercial quantum computers could exist by 2025.
As we prepare to embrace the bounty of opportunities they will afford us, we must also steel ourselves for the very real threat that quantum computers pose to the confidentiality and integrity of digital information - past, present, and future.
An existential threat to digital security?
Simply put, when quantum computers are eventually built, they will be able to crack many of the public-key cryptosystems on which virtually all of the world’s organizations and devices rely.
Specifically, the mathematical problems on which RSA and Elliptic-curve cryptography are based are easily solved (polynomial-time solvable) for quantum computers. This, for example, will allow the forgery of digital signatures by gaining access to the secret key corresponding to any public key and decryption of previously encrypted data in the future. This is known as a harvest now and decrypt later attack.
For governments and organizations alike, this introduces a huge cybersecurity risk and jeopardizes their ability to secure digital information over long periods of time.
Different industries have different timelines depending on how long their confidentiality requirements are, but it's fair to say that banks, financial services, healthcare providers, OEMs, and companies involved in critical infrastructure - anything that will last over 10 years - will need to prepare now.
Future-proofing with post-quantum cryptography
The aim of post-quantum cryptography (also known as quantum-safe cryptography) is to design algorithms that are secure against both quantum and conventional computers, which are interoperable with today’s technologies. Post-quantum cryptography can be implemented across hardware, software and data in transit such as end-to-end encrypted messaging services (PQShield’s solutions encompass all three categories).
Due to this inherent flexibility, post-quantum cryptography is the preferred means by which to mitigate the cybersecurity risk arising from quantum computers according to both the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), among others.
Sensing this urgency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the US Department of Commerce, initiated a process in late 2016 to develop algorithms which would form the backbone of new post-quantum cryptographic standards. These will in turn replace the traditional standards which are currently in use.
This process is in its third evaluation phase - two algorithms co-developed by PQShield were among the seven selected finalists. The process is likely to enter into its final stages by the end of the year or early next year. It is expected that once this process is completed, these standards will become a core requirement for doing business with agencies in the US government and likely more widely across the globe, within the next 5 years.
The time for action is now. NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE), which is leading the process, makes this clear, “It is critical to begin planning for the replacement of hardware, software, and services that use public‐key algorithms now so that the information is protected from future attacks.” Migrating to new cryptographic standards will take time but your organisation can and should prepare for this transition now before it’s too late.