Because the effort to pull together any kind of quantum-resistant cryptography will be lengthy and complex, the process must start now if those trusted cryptosystems are to be developed in time.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology is getting nervous about quantum computers and what they might mean for the cryptographic systems that protect both public and private data. Once seen as far off -- if not borderline science fiction -- quantum computing now seems a much closer reality.
A few days ago, IBM announced that students, researchers and “general science enthusiasts” can now use a cloud-based, 5-quibit quantum computing platform, which it calls the IBM Quantum Experience, to see how algorithms and various experiments work with a quantum processor.
IBM sees its approach to quantum computers as a first draft of how a universal quantum computer, which can be programmed to perform any computing task, will eventually be built. Getting people to experiment with this early quantum processor will, it clearly hopes, give it pointers on how to proceed in building quantum applications.
Though that universal computer doesn’t exist today, IBM said it envisions a medium-sized quantum processor of 50-100 qubits being possible in the next decade. Putting early access to a quantum processor in the hands of anybody with a desktop, laptop or even mobile device and represents, IBM said grandly, “the birth of quantum cloud computing.”
There’s been a raft of recent announcements aimed at quantum computing, which has clearly emerged from its conceptual stage. Intel, for example, said it would put as much as $50 million over the next 10 years into QuTech, a research unit at the Technical University of Delft, to see how to marry Delft’s quantum computing work to Intel’s expertise in making chips.
NASA is one government agency that has gone full bore into quantum computing, hooking up with Canadian quantum computing company D-Wave to see how its systems can be used to solve difficult problems and advance artificial intelligence and machine learning. Google, which is also committing resources to quantum computing, is a partner in this NASA venture.
No one is saying quantum computing will be a major industry any time soon. IBM’s venture apart, which is as low as you can get on a quantum computing scale, it’s not something that the general public will be able to take advantage of any time soon. However, from NIST’s perspective, that 10-year horizon is still frighteningly close when it comes to developing quantum-resistant encryption.
Current encryption methods depend on the difficulty of factoring very large numbers, such as those that enable RSA public key encryption. With the current generation of computers, even large supercomputers, that takes a very long time. For all intents and purposes, therefore, existing encryption schemes are considered very sound.
Quantum computing throws that confidence to the wind, however. By manipulating qubits -- units of quantum information analogous to classical computing bits -- computers can take advantage of quantum entanglement to do certain calculations very quickly. Including those needed to break encryption schemes.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Innsbruck said they had assembled a quantum computer that could eventually break the RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) public key encryption, the most popular form of encryption in the world.
NIST is getting nervous because it believes pulling any kind of quantum-resistant cryptography together to take the place of RSA and other forms of encryption might take too long, because scores of people would be involved in testing and scrutinizing such cryptosytems. Things have to start happening now if those trusted cryptosystems are to be developed in time.
At the end of April, NIST kicked off this effort to develop quantum-resistant cryptography with an initial report detailing the status of quantum computing research, in which it made its concerns clear.
“While in the past it was less clear that large quantum computers are a physical possibility, many scientists now believe it to be merely a significant engineering challenge,” NIST said in the report.
Crypto-breaking quantum computers might not arrive for another 20 years, but it took almost that long to deploy the public key cryptographic infrastructure we have now, NIST said. It will take a significant effort to ensure a smooth path from what we have now to “post-quantum cryptography,” and that effort has to start now.
When standards for quantum resistant cryptography become available, NIST said it will reassess the how close the quantum threat is to affecting existing cryptography and then decide whether to deprecate or withdraw the affected standards. Agencies “should therefore be prepared to transition away from these algorithms as early as 10 years from now.”
Is NIST overreacting? You might have been able to say that a couple of years ago but, as recent events have shown, the era of full-blown quantum computing looks to be arriving far sooner than people thought. If other areas of computing are any guide, that timeframe will likely only get shorter.
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