The race is on to build the world’s first reliable and truly useful quantum computer, and the finish line is closer than you might think – we might even reach it this decade. It’s an exciting prospect, particularly as these super-powerful machines offer huge potential to almost every industry, from drug development to electric-vehicle battery design.
But quantum computers also pose a big security problem. With exponentially higher processing power, they will be able to smash through the public-key encryption standards widely relied on today, threatening the security of all digital information and communication.
While it’s tempting to brush it under the carpet as “tomorrow’s problem”, the reality of the situation is much more urgent. That’s because quantum computers don’t just pose a threat to tomorrow’s sensitive information: they’ll be able to decrypt data that has been encrypted in the past, that’s being encrypted in the present, and that will be encrypted in the future (if quantum-resistant algorithms are not used).
It’s why the NSA warned, as early as 2015, that we “must act now” to defuse the threat, and why the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is racing to standardize new post-quantum cryptographic solutions, so businesses can get a trusted safety net in place before the threat materializes.
From aviation to pharma: The industries at risk
The harsh reality is that no one is immune to the quantum threat. Whether it’s a security service, pharmaceutical company or nuclear power station, any organization holding sensitive information or intellectual property that needs to be protected in the long term has to take the issue seriously.
The stakes are high. For governments, a quantum attack could mean a hostile state gains access to sensitive information, compromising state security or revealing secrets that undermine political stability. For pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, a quantum computer could allow competitors to gain access to valuable intellectual property, hijacking a drug that has been in costly development for years. (As we’re seeing in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, this IP can sometimes have significant geopolitical importance.)
Hardware and software are also vulnerable to attack. Within an industry like aviation, a quantum-empowered hacker would have the ability to forge the signature of a software update, push that update to a specific engine part, and then use that to alter the operations of the aircraft. Medical devices like pacemakers would be vulnerable to the same kind of attack, as would connected cars whose software is regularly updated from the cloud.
Though the list of scenarios goes on, the good news is that companies can ready themselves for the quantum threat using technologies available today. Here’s how:
1. Start the conversation early
Begin by promoting quantum literacy within your business to ensure that executive teams understand the severity and immediacy of the security threat. Faced with competing priorities, they may otherwise struggle to understand why this issue deserves immediate attention and investment.
It’s your job to make sure they understand what they’re up against. Identify specific risks that could materialize for your business and industry – what would a quantum attack look like, and what consequences would you be facing if sensitive information were to be decrypted?
Paint a vivid picture of the possible scenarios and calculate the cost that each one would have for your business, so everyone knows what’s at stake. By doing so, you’ll start to build a compelling business case for upgrading your organization’s information security, rather than assuming that this will be immediately obvious.
2. Work out what you’ve got and what you still need
Do a full audit of every place within your business where you are using cryptography, and make sure you understand why that is. Surprisingly, many companies have no idea of all the encryption they currently have in place or why, because the layers of protection have been built up in a siloed fashion over many years.
What cryptographic standards are you relying on today? What data are you protecting, and where? Try to pinpoint where you might be vulnerable. If you’re storing sensitive information in cloud-based collaboration software, for example, that may rely on public key cryptography, so won’t be quantum-secure.
As part of this audit, don’t forget to identify the places where data is in transit. However well your data is protected, it’s vulnerable when moving from one place to another. Make sure you understand how data is moving within your business – where from and to – so you can create a plan that addresses these weak points.
It’s also vital that you think about what industry regulations or standards you need to comply with, and where these come into play across the areas of your business. For industries like healthcare or finance, for example, there’s an added layer of regulation when it comes to information security, while privacy laws like the GDPR and CCPA will apply if you hold personal information relating to European or Californian citizens.
3. Build a long-term strategy for enhanced security
Once you’ve got a full view of what sensitive data you hold, you can start planning your migration to a quantum-ready architecture. How flexible is your current security infrastructure? How crypto-agile are your cryptography solutions? In order to migrate to new technology, do you need to rewrite everything, or could you make some straightforward switches?
Post-quantum encryption standards will be finalized by NIST in the next year and a half, but the process is already underway, and the direction of travel is becoming clearer. Now that finalist algorithms have been announced, businesses don’t need to wait to get quantum-secure – they must simply ensure that they design their security infrastructure to work with any of the shortlisted approaches that NIST is currently considering for standardization.
Deploying a hybrid solution – pairing existing solutions with one of the post-quantum schemes named as a NIST finalist – can be a good way to build resilience and flexibility into your security architecture. By doing this, you’ll be able to comply with whichever new industry standards are announced and remain fully protected against present and future threats in the meantime.
Whatever you decide, remember that migration can take time – especially if your business is already built on a complex infrastructure that will be hard to unpick and rebuild. Put a solid plan in place before you begin and consider partnering with an expert in the field to speed up the process.
A risk we can’t see
Just because a risk hasn’t yet materialized, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth preparing for (a mindset that could have come in handy for the coronavirus pandemic, all things considered…).
The quantum threat is serious, and it’s urgent. The good thing is that we already have all the ingredients to get a safety net in place, and thanks to strong mathematical foundations, we can be confident in the knowledge that the algorithms being standardized by NIST will protect businesses from even the most powerful computers.
The next step? Making sure this cutting-edge technology gets out of the lab and into the hands of the organizations who need it most.