NIST selects 12 companies for implementing post-quantum cryptography  

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Officials leading a standardization effort—based on four winning algorithms—are relying heavily on industry for success.

Microsoft, AWS, VMWare, Cisco Systems and Samsung are among 12 companies the National Institute of Standards and Technology has selected to guide the nation’s migration to cryptographic standards that are immune to the computation powers of a quantum machine.  

NIST revealed the list of companies Friday, noting their response to the agency’s Federal Register notice last fall, inviting collaborators to participate in the standardization process under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement.  

Earlier this month, NIST made a big splash announcing that—after a long international competition—it has identified four algorithms that will form the basis of the new standards and continue to diversify the kinds of math used, to allow for greater resilience of encryption mechanisms heading into a quantum age. 

“While we have identified the algorithms … there still is a significant and important block of work ahead of us,” said Matthew Scholl, chief of the computer security division of NIST’s Information Technology Laboratory. 

Scholl, briefing NIST’s Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board Wednesday, said over the next, “good couple of months,” the agency, along with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the private-sector entities selected, will generate a primary set of standards for implementing the new algorithms.  

“We will work with the submission team and openly with the public community to define the specifics of those implementations, so that they meet the requirements that NIST laid out in our initial Federal Register [notice] back in 2016 about the security strengths of those implementations,” Scholl said. “We will also decide on the implementation parameters … which will allow it to be built into commercial products with enough specificity that it can be interoperable, and that also we can ensure its correctness.”

Under National Security Memorandum 10, issued in May, NIST and CISA have “a goal of mitigating as much of the quantum risk as is feasible,” by 2035, Scholl said, referencing the document. To promote a sense of urgency, he also cited a study by the Quantum Economic Development Consortia, which reported that it took five years for a single tech enterprise to transition internally to advanced encryption standards. 

“We’re in the window … to transition from a theoretical issue to an engineering issue,” he said, noting implementers will endure “a kind of cryptographic turbulence” over the next five to ten years.

“We are updating our signature standard right now, which will be coming out very soon,” Scholl said. “Not only are we going to bring new items in but we're going to be starting to drop items as well. It's gonna be a little bit of a mixed bag … we are going to be pulling things from inventories.” Up next to officially go is the use of a three-key triple data encryption standard, which NIST will disallow starting this December. 

Officials are also considering whether to keep certain industry practices in use, regardless of whether they are quantum proof. 

“We're also going to be looking at what industry is using commercially, has been using historically safely and securely, and whether or not we should also be including that, even though they may or may not be quantum safe going forward as well,” Scholl said.

Beyond shaping the standardization process, industry will also have the opportunity to market another round of technology to federal agencies as part of the post-quantum cryptography initiative.

“Border proxies that need line speed and security are hardwired, and so, my border firewalls are all in silicon rather than software. And they don't update so there might be an opportunity for industry to resell to the government, which they might like,” Scholl said. “One of the things that's going to have to happen with the NSM 10 work is for government to identify where those expenses are, where we don't have the agility, where we're gonna have to do some of these re-purchases and then start to plan and budget for that as well. So yeah, agility is going to be one of the things that makes me concerned.”

Scholl added: “We are relying a lot on the industry side to help us do that.” 

Joining Scholl on Thursday as the meeting of the NIST board continued, Natasha Cohen, who is leading CISA’s part in the implementation process, emphasized the extent to which a successful transition relies on industry doing its part. 

“The vast majority of risk lies in the vendors,” Cohen said. “And so if we can get the really important companies that provide the foundation for IT security and IT management in critical infrastructure to transition, then updating technologies to supported technologies—so moving unsupported technologies out of our ecosystem—we'll get the vast majority of risk out of our ecosystem.”

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