The race for quantum-proof cryptography

Lawmakers briefed on quantum computing’s threat to encryption and the urgent need for mathematical research.

One of the biggest threats to privacy and national security is the ability of the immensely powerful quantum computers to break prevailing methods of encryption almost instantaneously. Once quantum computers become a reality, something that could conceivably happen in the next decade or two, all of the data protected by encrypted systems on the internet will become decrypted and unprotected, accessible to all individuals, organizations or nation-states.

Dr. Jill Pipher, President of the American Mathematical Society, VP for Research, and Elisha Benjamin Andrews Professor of Mathematics at Brown University led a briefing last week for lawmakers on Capitol Hill called “No Longer Secure: Cryptography in the Quantum Era” about the threats that quantum computing poses to existing cryptographic systems that support national and economic security. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) began the briefing by saying “we’re acutely aware of the potential advantages and disadvantages that quantum presents. And we’re also very concerned that some of our adversaries and competitors are investing a great deal in quantum computing.”

Reed, who sits on the Senate Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations committees, is concerned that the Trump Administration has dropped the ball in getting ready for the complex threat of quantum computing. “We really need a whole of government approach. With this administration, it’s not whole of government. It’s fragmented.”

Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) called quantum computing a “fascinating and scary topic” because all of the assumptions “that so much of the internet is based on today don’t seem to apply.” Right now, Langevin said, “trying to brute force cryptographic locks is nearly impossible. It would take billions of years using the fastest computer to do that today.” But, within decades it’s possible for the far more powerful quantum computers to guess current encryption keys within a fraction of a second. “Deploying new algorithms is a policy challenge in and of itself. Certainly, Congress needs to look at it sooner rather than later.”

“The future of the powerful quantum computing threatens the cryptographic infrastructure that we’ve spent decades developing,” Dr. Pipher said, in making the case for faster development of quantum-proof cryptography while governments and companies race to build quantum computers. “About four or five years ago it became rather urgent for companies and governments to develop cryptography that would resist the speed ups afforded by a quantum computer.”

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