Shield your data from a quantum attack: The path to PQC migration

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For many in this community, a working quantum computer will likely still feel fairly fictional—an innovation that’s light years away. There’s also the idea that a working quantum computer wouldn’t be a good thing? For example, won’t a working quantum computer allow scientists to accelerate drug discovery and development?

The downside is that while these computers bring many benefits, they also bring new security risks that are much closer at hand than many realize. The first working Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC) will be able to break public-key encryption, which is now widely relied on to protect information. This means that data, no matter how secure it may be at the moment, will be vulnerable to a future attack on an unprecedented scale.

To remedy this danger, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) launched a competition in 2016 to identify new quantum-proof encryption algorithms. She recently made her decision on which algorithms will become the new standard. Organizations that have been waiting for certainty about the nature of the new encryption can now begin migrating their infrastructure to protect their data.

Let’s look at what that migration should look like and how organizations can best set themselves up to protect their data for years to come.


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The Quantum Menace

As indicated above, it is generally accepted that a sufficiently mature quantum computer will be able to break today’s public key encryption (PKC) standards – RSA and Elliptic Curve.

So what are the implications? Simply put, without secure encryption the digital economy would no longer function as PKC is used everywhere in our daily digital interactions. With a sophisticated quantum computer, a hacker could:

  • Empty people’s bank accounts or cryptocurrency wallets
  • Intercept and decrypt sensitive communications
  • Disable critical infrastructure such as power grids and communication networks
  • Reveal virtually any secret we choose to keep secret
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The timing here is still much debated, but many predictions incorrectly focus on commercial quantum computing being up to 15-20 years away. The threat I am referring to is not a commercial quantum computer that JP Morgan can buy to do its own trading analysis. I’m talking about the sheer power of breaking codes in lab conditions, which will come much sooner. The cybersecurity community estimates that this could happen in as little as five years.

While we cannot predict the exact timing of the proliferation of a working quantum machine, billions of dollars are being poured into the research and development of quantum computing, meaning it’s really only a matter of time before the encryption upon which it can be cracked almost every application used today relies on it. Even if the first quantum computer isn’t seen before 2030, we’re still in a race against time to stay safe. It is estimated that it would take at least 10 years to migrate the existing cryptographic infrastructure as it entails the transformation of most electronic devices connected to the Internet.

Harvest now, decode later

Adding to this threat is the possibility that even today, organizations with sensitive data that has a long shelf life could see that data being harvested and captured by criminals who intend to decrypt it once a powerful enough quantum computer arrives. In other words, any data with a multi-year lifespan could be collected today and decrypted in the future. This could include government secrets, R&D innovations, trade data in financial services, and strategic plans.

This Harvest-Now-Decrypt-Later (HNDL) threat is backed by a large body of research showing that rogues are likely to start collecting encrypted data with long-term uses in anticipation of eventually decrypting it with quantum computers. I would argue that this could already be happening, for example in cases where we see internet traffic being rerouted along unusual global paths for no apparent reason before returning to normal. To support my observations, several Five Eyes agencies have also commented that this phenomenon is more common.

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Map a path to protection

With this array of threats, NIST has taken the lead in coordinating a global response. The Post-Quantum Cryptography (PQC) program is a multi-year effort to identify new encryption algorithms that are resistant to a future code-breaking quantum computer and can protect data from HNDL attacks.

After drawing on input from leading academic and commercial cryptographers, NIST has finally decided which algorithms will become the new standard in global cryptography. NIST selected CRYSTALS-Kyber for general purpose encryption and CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCON and SPHINCS+ for digital signatures. It also preferred four other candidates for additional testing, including the ultra-safe Classic McEliece. While current PKC standards (RSA and Elliptic Curve) can be used for both encryption and digital signature, various post-quantum algorithms cannot, meaning they replace the existing PKC with a pair of different algorithms will.

Now that these new standards are finalized, organizations that have been waiting for certainty about what type of new encryption to use can begin migrating their infrastructure to protect their data. This will not be an easy task, so here is a non-exhaustive list of recommendations for organizations looking to take this PQC migration seriously:

1. If you haven’t already, set up your Y2Q crypto migration project now and give it significant support and investment. As with any large IT program or project, you need a dedicated team with the right skills and resources to ensure success.

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2. Once this is in place, the first goal of the project team should be to conduct a crypto inventory audit. That means taking stock of where crypto is being deployed across the organization today to ensure you can set a migration path that prioritizes high-value assets while identifying any expected impact to operating systems.

3. One of the most important considerations for your project team is hybridization adoption. That means choosing and deploying solutions that retain the proven classic cryptography we use today, like RSA, alongside one or more post-quantum algorithms to ensure you are protected against both current and future threats.

Additionally, the use cases that require encryption vary by industry and sector, giving you more flexibility by introducing crypto agility – which can use different PQC algorithms depending on the application. This is especially true for algorithms that are analyzed in a fourth round and have the potential to become future standards as well, some of which may be better suited for high-security use cases.

4. Finally, consider deploying a quantum-proof hybrid VPN. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has developed a set of specifications for such VPN products and recommends crypto-agile solutions that support hybrid key generation, meaning that post-quantum algorithms can work alongside today’s standards. Quantum-safe VPN products based on the IETF specification are already on the market, so upgrading is a relatively easy step that you can already take.

Andersen Cheng is CEO of Post-Quantum.

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