Protect your data from a quantum attack: the path to PQC migration
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To many in this community, a working quantum computer will likely still seem quite fictional – an innovation that is still light years away. There’s also the idea that, well, wouldn’t a working quantum computer be a good thing? Won’t a functioning quantum computer, for example, allow scientists to accelerate drug discovery and development?
The flip side is that while these computers will bring many benefits, they will also bring new security risks, which are much more within reach than many realize. The first working cryptographically relevant quantum computer (CRQC) will have the power to break through the public-key encryption widely used today to protect information. This means that data, regardless of its current security, will be vulnerable to a future attack on a scale never seen before.
To address this danger, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) launched a competition in 2016 to identify new quantum encryption algorithms. He recently made his decision on which algorithms will become the new standard. Companies that were waiting for certain what kind of new encryption to use can now start migrating their infrastructure to protect their data.
Let’s take a look at what this migration should look like and how businesses can better set themselves up to protect their data for years to come.
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The Quantum Threat
As alluded to above, it is widely accepted that a sufficiently mature quantum computer will be able to break the current public key encryption (PKC) standards – RSA and elliptic curve.
So what are the implications? Simply put, without secure encryption, the digital economy would cease to function, as PKC is used everywhere in our daily digital interactions. With a mature 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
- Expose virtually any secret we wish to keep secret
The timing is still highly debated, but many predictions mistakenly focus on commercial quantum computers 15 to 20 years from now. The threat I am referring to is not a trading quantum computer that JP Morgan can buy to do its own trading analysis. I’m talking about the absolute power to break code under lab conditions, which will come much sooner. The cybersecurity community believes this could happen in as little as five years.
While we can’t predict exactly when a working quantum machine will proliferate, billions of dollars are being invested in quantum computing R&D, which means it’s really only a matter of time before encryption on which virtually all applications used today are based can be deciphered. . Plus, even if the first quantum computer isn’t seen until 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 involves transforming most electronic devices that connect to the Internet.
Harvest now, decrypt later
Added to this threat is the possibility that, even today, organizations with long-lived sensitive data could see the data being harvested and captured by criminals intent on decrypting it once a sufficiently powerful quantum computer will arrive. In other words, all data with a lifetime of several years could be collected today and decrypted in the future. This could include government secrets, R&D innovation, business data in financial services, and strategic plans.
This Harvest Now, Decrypt Later (HNDL) threat is supported by lots of research, who find that rogue actors will likely begin collecting encrypted data with long-term utility, expecting to eventually decrypt it with quantum computers. I would say it could already be happening, as in instances where we see internet traffic rerouted on unusual global paths for no apparent reason before returning to normal. To support my observations, several Five Eyes agencies also commented that this phenomenon was becoming more frequent.
Forging a path to protection
With this array of threats, NIST has taken the lead in coordinating a global response. Its 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 against HNDL attacks.
After relying on input from top academic and private sector cryptographers, NIST has finally decided which algorithms will become the new standard in global cryptography. NIST chose CRYSTALS-Kyber for general encryption and CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCONand SPHINCS+ for digital signatures. He also put forward four other candidates for further scrutiny, including the ultra-secure Classic McEliece. While current PKC standards (RSA and Elliptic Curve) can be used for both encryption and digital signing, various post-quantum algorithms cannot, meaning they will replace the existing PKC with a pair of different algorithms.
Now that these new standards are finalized, companies that have been waiting for certainty about what type of new encryption to use can start 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 that want to take this PQC migration seriously:
1. If you haven’t already, set up your Y2Q crypto-migration project now and give it strong support and investment. As with any large IT program or project, you will need a dedicated team with the right skills and resources to ensure success.
2. Once this is in place, the initial goal of the project team should be to audit the crypto inventory. This means taking stock of where crypto is deployed in the organization today, ensuring that you can chart a migration path that prioritizes high-value assets while identifying any expected impact on operational systems.
3. Adopting hybridization is one of the main considerations for your project team. This means choosing and deploying solutions that retain the proven classic cryptography we use today, such as RSA, alongside one or more post-quantum algorithms, ensuring that you are protected against current and future threats.
Additionally, the use cases where encryption is needed vary across industries and sectors, so adopting crypto-agility – where different PQC algorithms can be used depending on the applications – will give you greater flexibility. This is particularly the case for algorithms that are analyzed in a fourth cycle, which have the potential to also become future standards, some potentially more appropriate for high security use cases.
4. Finally, you should consider deploying a quantum-safe hybrid VPN. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has developed a set of specifications for these VPN products, recommending crypto-agile solutions that support hybrid key establishment, meaning that post-quantum algorithms can work alongside current standards. Quantum-safe VPN products based on the IETF specification are already on the market, so upgrading is a relatively simple step that you can already take.
Andersen Cheng is CEO of Post-Quantum.
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