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NIST Calls For Submissions Of Quantum-Proof Encryption Algorithms As Threat Of Quantum Computers Looms Closer

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which tends to define which encryption algorithms are used nationally by federal agencies and private companies, called on the public to submit algorithms that would be resilient against quantum computers.

Warnings Against Quantum Computers

Last year, the National Security Agency (NSA) said the time to protect systems against quantum computers is now. We’ve also seen quite a few quantum computing-related breakthroughs in the past year that could make universal quantum computers more practical to build.

Some cryptographers have warned about the need to adopt quantum-proof encryption algorithms sooner rather than later for almost a decade. However, quantum computers only started to become a potentially serious threat once building them became an engineering issue, rather than a scientific one.

Why Adopting Quantum-Proof Algorithms Early Is Important

We may still be at least a decade or two away from a universal quantum computer that could break most of today’s encryption, but that still may not be enough time to properly secure most data against quantum hacking.

Encryption algorithms tend to linger on the internet and in various tools many years after they are known to be broken and insecure. It also takes a while for most tools and platforms to adopt modern encryption even after everyone decides it’s time to do so.

On top of that, it also takes many years to test new algorithms to ensure that they are indeed secure, sometimes by holding competitions to find out what proposed standard is the strongest. Testing, approving, and deploying a new encryption algorithm to most platforms and products can easily take a decade, if not longer.

However, deploying quantum-proof encryption to most devices and digital products before quantum computers that can break all conventional encryption debut may not be enough to keep previous communications secure. Intelligence agencies store data for multiple years, or even indefinitely, which means that as soon as quantum computers are capable of breaking conventional encryption they could start decrypting that personal data.

In other words, even if it takes another two decades before powerful enough quantum computers with thousands of qubits arrive, the NSA, NIST, and others who are worried about these devices may still be right that we need quantum-proof encryption today, and we need to deploy it soon.

Also, with Google promising a 50-qubit universal quantum computer by 2018, and assuming a Moore’s Law or D-Wave level of qubit scaling, those encryption-breaking quantum computers may be closer to one decade away than two.

Submitting Algorithms To NIST

Cryptography researchers can send NIST their algorithms by November 2017. NIST recommended they focus mainly on inventing quantum-proof public key cryptography, which is the type of encryption needed to protect data in transit over the internet, including financial transactions.

“We’re looking to replace three NIST cryptographic standards and guidelines that would be the most vulnerable to quantum computers,” said NIST mathematician Dustin Moody, referring to FIPS 186-4, NIST SP 800-56A and NIST SP 800-56B. “They deal with encryption, key establishment and digital signatures, all of which use forms of public key cryptography,” he explained.

NIST will review all the submissions. Those which meet the requirements will be invited to present their work at an open workshop in early 2018. The evaluation phase will take another three to five years.

“We hope to get lots of people around the world working on this so we can have increased confidence in the results,” Moody said. "Post-quantum algorithms haven't received nearly the same amount of scrutiny and cryptanalysis as those we currently use on today's conventional computers. We need that to change,” he added.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.