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A few days ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that the first four cryptographic algorithms to withstand the potential assault of future quantum computers were already selected. It took six years for this to happen.

By the end of 2016, NIST publicly called for help to avert the *imminent* threat of quantum computers against information security. It appealed to cryptographers worldwide to devise, develop and vet new methods to protect the confidentiality and integrity of information from such devices that could break the encryption codes we currently rely on. Those experts who wanted to participate had until November 30, 2017, to send their proposals. From there, they had to present them in order to move on to an assessment phase in the following years.

NIST speaks of imminent danger because practical quantum computers have not yet been built. However, in recent years there has been a great deal of research on these computers, which could solve very complex mathematical problems (including those used for current encryption systems) that can be intractable for conventional devices. No one knows exactly when a large-scale quantum computer might be built. Still, many already consider it more than a mere physical possibility, a major engineering challenge for the near future. In 2016, some people were already making predictions that these computers would be ready in a couple of decades.

A large-scale quantum computer could jeopardize, for example, an encryption system widely used nowadays by governments and industries called public key cryptography. Hence the need to quickly develop the so-called post-quantum or quantum-resistant cryptography, which, indeed, at NIST would replace three of its existing cryptographic standards (FIPS 186-4, NIST SP 800-56A and NIST SP 800-56B) that use forms of public key cryptography.

Before mentioning the quantum-resistant algorithms selected by NIST, let's elaborate upon a couple of key terms: public key cryptography and quantum computing.

Public key cryptography

Also known as asymmetric cryptography, public key cryptography is an encryption system for transforming and protecting information when it is sent from one individual to another. In this system, everyone uses pairs of related keys: a public key, which is known to others, and a private key, which is known only to the owner. These keys are very long numbers. Both are generated from a large random number using the same cryptographic algorithms based on one-way functions. These functions are so named because the return to the input from the output delivered by them is pretty complex.

Each public key is distributed without any problem so that anyone can encrypt with it a message addressed to its owner. The latter, with only their private key, could decrypt the encoded information. These keys are inevitably linked to each other. The security of this system lies in the complexity of obtaining the private key from the public key, which would involve the factoring of large numbers.

The trouble is that quantum computers are expected to be able to break this mode of encryption in a tiny amount of time, with calculations taking perhaps a few minutes, compared to the thousands or millions of years it might take today's supercomputers to do so. Quantum computers could apply quantum algorithms, like the one developed by mathematician Peter Shor in 1994, which, in theory, can crack such public key cryptography. The necessary conditions would be that the computer where the algorithm operates has enough qubits and does not manifest noise and lack of coherence. But, what's a qubit?

Quantum computing

Over the years, scientists have been studying the tricky and enigmatic world of atoms and their components, such as electrons and protons. These so-called quantum particles are known to have enormous potential to contain and process vast amounts of information. Quantum computing involves controlling these particles, that is, isolating and keeping them in a special processor for manipulation.

Instead of bits, the minimal units of information of classical computers, we refer to qubits, aka quantum bits, for quantum computers, which consist of quantum particles loaded with data. A peculiar property of these particles is called superposition, which allows them to exist in several states at the same time. Thus, unlike the inflexible bit, the qubit can be a one and a zero simultaneously. In addition to this property, there is another one called entanglement that allows the particles to be physically linked. Consequently, the incorporation of a new qubit to a system leads it to grow in capacity exponentially and not linearly, as in the case of bits.

Depending on such characteristics, qubits can explore several routes in parallel, performing multiple computations at the same time to solve a problem. Apart from a downside, such as the aforementioned breakdown of public key cryptography, the enormous power of these new computers would bring significant benefits to fields such as climate modeling and drug discovery.

Currently, various companies have developed quantum processors of different types, thanks to the diverse and complex means by which particles can be obtained and isolated from any alteration in the environment to generate qubits. For instance, IBM and Google have developed so-called superconducting processors that make use of electrons and employ very low temperatures for their control. These companies have resorted to technologies that, for now, are too difficult to scale up, so the results remain limited. As Leprince-Ringuet comments in ZDNet, "Right now, with a mere 100 qubits being the state of the art, there is very little that can actually be done with quantum computers. For qubits to start carrying out meaningful calculations, they will have to be counted in the thousands, and even millions."

Back in 2019, Google, with its 54-qubit superconducting processor Sycamore, reported having achieved in 200 seconds the answer to a problem that would have taken a current supercomputer 10,000 years to reach. Not long after, researchers at a university in China reported that their processor also completed in 200 seconds a task that would have taken classical computers 600 million years to finish. In both cases, the challenges were very specific and of little real utility. Apart from the need for more qubits to solve more useful computations, another issue to keep in mind is that qubits are unstable, and this can lead to miscalculations.

The development of a large-scale quantum computer is a clear goal in a wild race of international companies and governments with diverse methods under exploration and assessment. As we have pointed out, achieving this goal, apart from some benefits, may entail substantial risks to information privacy. In fact, in October last year, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center highlighted quantum computing as one of five key technology sectors that may pose threats to the country. The others were artificial intelligence, bioeconomy, autonomous systems and semiconductors. The idea that countries like China could lead these sectors in the next decade is quite worrying for world powers like the U.S.

In line with the above, just this May, the White House expressed the desire of the U.S. government to be at the forefront of quantum information science and the responsibility to migrate its cryptographic systems to mitigate quantum risk asap. And although official standards for quantum-resistant cryptography are not yet ready, recent algorithm choices by NIST suggest that it is getting closer.

The first four quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms

NIST's post-quantum cryptography program has leveraged cryptography experts around the world for the generation of algorithms leading to the establishment of the aforementioned standards in about two years. More than sixty were the algorithms received by NIST, of which they chose the following four: CRYSTALS-Kyber, CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCON and SPHINCS+. However, there are presently four other algorithms under evaluation that could be added to the shortlist soon.

It is envisioned that the NIST post-quantum cryptographic standards will be able to offer solutions for different situations with different systems from multiple approaches and alternatives. Thus the selection of various algorithms that are mainly designed to respond to two tasks: General encryption, which is used for the protection of information exchanged over public networks, and digital signature, which is used for identity authentication.

Among the four selected algorithms, CRYSTALS-Kyber is the only one that would be used for general encryption; the other three would be used for digital signatures. Moreover, concerning the mathematical problems they take as a basis, SPHINCS+ is the only one that uses hash functions, while the other three rely on structured lattices. The four algorithms still under evaluation are designed for general encryption and do not use any of the above mathematical methods. All are expected to become intractable for both conventional and quantum computers.

Though the new NIST standards are still under development, this organization is encouraging security experts to explore the chosen algorithms and think about how their applications would use them. For now, without planning to integrate them since changes may occur before the standards are finalized. Many researchers may even take these algorithms and try to find weaknesses in them in order to contribute to their modification or maturation.

The transition to post-quantum cryptography protocols has to take place when the standards are ready, but it is something we can get involved in from sites like this one from NIST. This is something that all organizations in the digital world need to be prepared for, mainly so that we don't get any nasty surprises in terms of cybersecurity. Be careful! The media are already sounding the alarm about those criminals who are currently bent on stealing encrypted data in the hope of decrypting it as soon as they get their hands on the longed-for quantum computers.

Concerned about your organization's cybersecurity? We invite you to download and review Fluid Attacks' latest annual report, State of Attacks 2022. Benchmark against our figures how you are handling security in your organization. Want to improve? Get to know now our comprehensive Continuous Hacking service.

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