Google plans to manufacture millions of qubit quantum computers in 2029 that will be much more powerful than this system it showed in 2019.
Stephen Shankland / CNET
Quantum computers, if mature enough, will be able to break much of the current encryption. This will expose private communications, company data and military secrets.
Today’s quantum computers are too primitive to do so. But data collected surreptitiously could now be sensitive when more powerful quantum computers are put online in a few years.
The computer industry is well aware of this potential vulnerability. Some companies have begun an effort to create, test, and adopt new encryption algorithms that are impervious to quantum computers. Some of these companies, including IBM and Thales, have already begun offering products protected by so-called post-quantum cryptography.
Quantum-safe encryption will come into your life using laptops, phones, web browsers and other up-to-date products. But most of the burden of secure quantum encryption falls on the companies, governments, and cloud computing services that need to design and install the technology. It is an extraordinarily complex change that is on par with fixing Y2K bugs or upgrading Internet communications from IPv4 to IPv6.
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It is a colossal effort, but it must be done. Not only are current communications vulnerable, but quantum computers could later break digital signatures that ensure the integrity of application updates, browsers, operating systems, and other programs, paving the way for malware.
Quantum computing is the industry favorite and has attracted millions of dollars in investment. This month, the search giant unveiled plans for a new quantum computing center that will employ hundreds of people with the goal of building a practical quantum computer by 2029. Other tech giants, such as Honeywell, IBM , Intel and Microsoft, compete to build the first powerful quantum computers. Like IonQ, PsiQuantum, Xanadu, Silicon Quantum Computing and other startups.
Find post-quantum cryptography algorithms
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading the global effort to find post-quantum cryptographic algorithms that are fast and reliable. He has won 82 initial contributions to a group of seven final candidates for two encryption tasks: exchanging digital keys and adding digital signatures.
“Hopefully in early 2022 or so, we’ll select a small number of them to start standardizing,” Dustin Moody, a NIST mathematician working on the effort, said at an IBM cryptography meeting in March. “We hope to have the final version fully ready and released by 2024.”
Although NIST oversees the work, researchers from companies, academics, and governments participate through NIST’s post-quantum cryptography mailing list and PQC’s public conferences. Open focus is important, as encryption algorithms require deep control before we can rely on them to protect our passwords, credit card numbers, financial records, and other sensitive information.
When these machines will be able to break conventional encryption is an open question. But safe money suggests it won’t take long.
John Graham-Cumming, chief technology officer of Internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, said there is a lot of uncertainty: it could be five years before quantum computers could break the cipher or it could take 20. adopt them. for internal operations this year.
Intel and NTT Research researchers and 451 Research analyst James Sanders estimate it will take a decade.
How urgent is solving the problem?
“I’m not completely burned out,” said Brian LaMacchia, who directs Microsoft Research’s encryption work. “But I’m a little sung.”
Collect the data now, download it later
The urgency comes because the current encrypted data could be collected now and broken down later. Hackers or nations can log network data, for example, when Internet routing problems send traffic to borders to China or other countries.
“If you want long-term security, it may be too late,” said Thomas Pöppelmann, a cryptography engineer at German chip maker Infineon and co-creator of one of the PQC algorithm candidates.
NIST has a compelling assessment of the problem. When cyber adversaries have access to the power of quantum computing, our modern cryptographic systems based on public keys will not stand the test. “Nothing can be done to protect the confidentiality of encrypted material that had previously been stored by an adversary,” the agency states.
Public key cryptography is the basis of much of today’s encryption. It combines two digital keys, one secret and one public, which together can be used to secure communications. For example, it is used to secure connections between your web browser and your bank or between a corporate server and a remote backup system.
Shor algorithm and cracking encryption
In 1994, MIT professor Peter Shor discovered that quantum computers could find the prime factors of numbers through a technique that now bears his name. Shor’s algorithm was the spark that ignited the interest in quantum computing on the part of companies, academics, and intelligence agencies, says Seth Lloyd, another MIT professor and pioneer in the field.
The resulting research is why major well-funded companies and startups are picking up the pace of their progress in quantum computing. Quantum computer manufacturers are building machines with more and more qubits (their key elements of data processing), while developing error correction techniques to keep them stable through longer calculations. Algorithms also accelerate quantum decryption of computers.
Accelerate the progress of quantum computing
The progress of quantum computing led cybersecurity firm Deepwatch to accelerate its schedule for encryption cracking. Instead of taking 20 years, it could happen in 10 to 15 years, said Marissa “Reese” Wood, vice president of product and strategy.
For today’s RSA encryption algorithm, a conventional computer would need about 300 trillion years to break protected communications with a 2,048-bit digital key. But a quantum computer powered by 4,099 qubits would need only 10 seconds, Wood said.
For comparison, Google expects to build a quantum computer in 2029 with 1,000 “logical” qubits, stable enough to make a long calculation.
What to do with post-quantum encryption
The quantum transition is, in many ways, more difficult than some previous encryption updates. One problem is that digital key sizes are likely to be larger, which requires more memory to process. Changing algorithms will not be a simple exchange, especially for smart home devices and other products with little computing power.
Even before NIST chooses its winners, companies can adopt “cryptographic agility” in their current computing infrastructure, ensuring that their systems do not depend on a particular encryption technology. This is the advice of several experts, including Andersen Cheng, CEO of Post-Quantum, a London-based company that helps customers deal with quantum crack.
“People thought he was crazy” when he co-founded Post-Quantum in 2009, Cheng said. “I don’t think they laugh anymore.”
Experts also recommend a hybrid approach that protects data with conventional and post-quantum security encryption. This allows system administrators to embrace PQC sooner without worrying so much about the weaknesses that could be found in relatively immature algorithms. Hybrid encryption is now possible, although most expect a serious adoption of PQC to occur after NIST is done with its standardization work.
IBM currently offers quantum secure cryptography in various cloud computing products. “If you have secrets that should remain secrets in ten or thirty years, you should start this migration sooner rather than later,” said Vadim Lyubashevsky, an cryptography researcher at IBM Research.
France-based Thales, which like IBM has a PQC algorithm in the final round of NIST, has begun letting customers try out the technology. This is important, given its influence with financial and government clients.
Not an easy upgrade
Switching to secure quantum encryption on slower-moving computing infrastructures is more difficult.
“Estonian ballot papers have a signature algorithm that is physically burned on a chip,” said Joël Alwen, chief cryptographer at security communications company Wickr. “It will be a big effort to change that.”
Another difficult solution will be computer systems that control power grids and military operations. They usually work for decades. But where there is sensitive data, post-quantum cryptography updates will occur, said Martin Reynolds, a Gartner analyst.
“In 20 years,” Reynolds said, “everyone will be glad we did.”