NIST names first four quantum-resistant encryption tools

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has chosen the first group of encryption tools it believes will withstand the assault of a future quantum computer, a decision welcomed by the Canadian government’s cyber agency.

NIST, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department, said Tuesday the four selected encryption algorithms will become part of NIST’s post-quantum cryptographic standard, expected to be finalized in about two years.

The goal is to protect current and future encrypted digital systems — from government databases to bank accounts to email messages — from being cracked by powerful quantum computers.

The decision is part of a process NIST started six years ago to be prepared for a time when quantum computers could break current encryption technologies. The selection constitutes the beginning of the finale of the agency’s post-quantum cryptography standardization project.

Not only are huge IT companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Google pouring billions into quantum computing research, so are governments including China and Russia. Canadian companies include D-Wave Systems and Xanadu Quantum Technologies. It may be years before commercially-viable quantum computers that can work on practical computing problems are available, but governments want quantum-resistant algorithms ready well before that.

Related content: An ITWC panel discussion on quantum computing

The four initial NIST algorithms are broken into two categories:

–for general encryption, used for accessing secure websites, the CRYSTALS-Kyber algorithm. Among its advantages, NIST says, are comparatively small encryption keys that two parties can exchange easily, as well as its speed of operation;

–for digital signatures, often used to verify identities during a digital transaction or to sign a document remotely, there are three algorithms: CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCON and SPHINCS+ (read as “Sphincs plus”).

NIST recommends CRYSTALS-Dilithium as the primary algorithm, with FALCON for applications that need smaller signatures than Dilithium can provide. SPHINCS+, is somewhat larger and slower than the other two, NIST says, but it is valuable as a backup for one chief reason: It is based on a different math approach than all three of NIST’s other selections.

Three of the selected algorithms are based on a family of math problems called structured lattices, while SPHINCS+ uses hash functions.

The additional four algorithms still under consideration are designed for general encryption, and don’t use structured lattices or hash functions in their approaches.

While the final standard is in development, NIST encourages security experts to explore the new algorithms and consider how their applications will use them. However, it recommends the chosen algorithms shouldn’t be baked into their systems yet, as the algorithms could change slightly before the standard is finalized.

In a statement, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which protects federal IT networks, and its public-facing Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, said the NIST decision is a “significant step toward ensuring our cyber ecosystem becomes quantum-safe. Although this announcement is an important step towards standardization, the Cyber Centre continues to advise organizations to wait for further guidance before using these algorithms to protect data or systems.”

When NIST publishes its final standard, the Cyber Centre will update its list of approved cryptographic algorithms for use in federal applications.

The Cyber Centre is a partner with NIST on the Cryptographic Module Validation Program (CMVP), which is used to certify that IT products are ready for government procurement. It will also work with NIST to update the Cryptographic Algorithm Validation Program (CAVP) under the CMVP to test implementations of new post-quantum computing algorithms.

The Cyber Centre advises consumers to procure and use cryptographic modules that are tested and validated under CMVP, with algorithm certificates from the CAVP.

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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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