Encryption-breaking quantum computers getting closer, warns Canadian expert

With research accelerating around the world on next-generation quantum supercomputers, the odds of someone creating a new machine able to crack current encryption methods protecting data has increased in the last 12 months, says a Canadian expert.

Last year at this time, when experts from around the world gathered in Toronto for the fourth annual Quantum Safe Workshop, it was estimated there was a one in seven chance that by 2026 a quantum computer will be built that can break RSA-2048 encryption.

That’s now down to a one in six chance, says Michele Mosca, co-founder of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, program director and a speaker at this year’s conference in London, which starts today. So perhaps within a decade, or, perhaps longer.

“I’m not saying there’s humongous unexpected breakthroughs and we should all panic,” he says. “But it’s more significant progress than I expected.”

And CISOs have to be prepared now to start protecting sensitive data better.

The conference brings together researchers, security vendors and C-suite executives to help prepare for new suite of standardized tools resilient to quantum computers in the future to protect data being encrypted now.

Mosca doesn’t expect this week’s conference to reveal any surprising breakthroughs. However, it will suggest where progress is being made both in the creation of quantum computers and defensive solutions.

Presenters will include an official from China’s Innovation Center for Quantum Information and Quantum Technology, expected to talk about a quantum cryptography experiment in space conducted earlier this year which could pave the way for unbreakable quantum key distribution. A Swiss-based company called ID Quantique says it is working on a similar satellite-based solution, and an official from that firm will also speak about its QuSat project.

“One of the reasons for founding this workshop was to have a higher level discussion” on defending against quantum computers, Mosca said. “We knew the technical people will have to figure out how to get these things to interoperate and interface , but now it was time to engage the broader community to figure this out together.” such as governments, the C-suite and vendors.

And while the technical tracks include sessions such as “A Brief Introduction to Techniques for Solving Lattice-Based Quantum-Safe Schemes,” and “Zero Knowledge Authentication for RLWE Samples and New Robust Key Exchange Allowing Key Reuse,” the conference also has sessions for business executives on why quantum computing is important now.

“This is not intended to be another academic conference,” Mosca stressed. “This is about how do we get these tools ready for showtime – how do we get them from our whiteboards and labs to deployed products protecting citizens.”

“Quantum computers will break the way we do cyber security, the way we do cryto(graphy) today, and we need to solve it.”

Briefly, quantum computers take the theory of quantum mechanics to change the world of traditional computation of bits represented by zeros and ones. Instead, a bit can be a zero OR a one. In a quantum computer such basic elements are called qubits.

Mosco sees the quantum computing world from two sides. On the threat side, “a lot has happened in the last six to eight months in terms of progress towards scalable quantum computing” by public and private researchers in Canada, the U.S., Australia, England, Japan, the Netherlands and China.

Researchers have created as many as 10 physical qubits, he said, but the real advance will be the creation of logical qubits chaining physical ones that can scale, be fault-tolerant and therefore threaten current cryptography.

On the solution side Mosca admits researchers are getting closer to creating security tools that would keep up with the speed of a quantum computer. This side has been slower, in part because until the threat can be shown businesses see no reason to act. Most technology purchasers assume their security vendors will have a solution, Mosca said.

Some are working on one. In addition, the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology has welcomed ideas for quantum-resistant public-key cryptographic algorithms. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 30.  However, it will take some time for any algorithm to be verified. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) are also working on a standard. The topic is also increasingly on the agendas of cryptography conferences, he said.

However, Mosca warns CISOs that “you need to have a [quantum-safe] plan. You need to start your planning immediately. You don’t need to panic – a plan doesn’t mean you need to buy lots of stuff. But if you haven’t already you need to develop a roadmap and start a conversation with the other stakeholders” in your organization. “Then it will become clearer whether you need to step up the pace.”

To that end Mosca and a colleague have posted a six-step quantum risk assessment methodology for CISOs. The methodology can be integrated with common risk management frameworks from NIST, ISO or other groups.

Those steps involve creating a mathematical formula doing this:

1- Identify and document information assets, and their current cryptographic protection;

 2- Research the state of emerging quantum computers and quantum-safe cryptography.  Estimate the timelines for availability of these technologies.  Influence the development and validation of quantum-safe cryptography;

 3- Identify threat actors, and estimate their time to access quantum technology “z”;

 4- Identify the lifetime of your assets “x”, and the time required to transform the organization’s technical infrastructure to a quantum-safe state “y”;

5- Determine quantum risk by calculating whether business assets will become vulnerable before the organization can move to protect them.  (so, is x + y > z ?)

6- Identify and prioritize the activities required to maintain awareness, and to migrate the organization’s technology to a quantum-safe state.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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