While they wrestle with the immediate danger posed by hackers today, US government officials are preparing for another, longer-term threat: attackers who are collecting sensitive, encrypted data now in the hope that they’ll be able to unlock it at some point in the future. MIT Technology Review reports: The threat comes from quantum computers, which work very differently from the classical computers we use today. Instead of the traditional bits made of 1s and 0s, they use quantum bits that can represent different values at the same time. The complexity of quantum computers could make them much faster at certain tasks, allowing them to solve problems that remain practically impossible for modern machines — including breaking many of the encryption algorithms currently used to protect sensitive data such as personal, trade, and state secrets. While quantum computers are still in their infancy, incredibly expensive and fraught with problems, officials say efforts to protect the country from this long-term danger need to begin right now.
Faced with this “harvest now and decrypt later” strategy, officials are trying to develop and deploy new encryption algorithms to protect secrets against an emerging class of powerful machines. That includes the Department of Homeland Security, which says it is leading a long and difficult transition to what is known as post-quantum cryptography. […] DHS recently released a road map for the transition, beginning with a call to catalogue the most sensitive data, both inside the government and in the business world. [Tim Maurer, who advises the secretary of homeland security on cybersecurity and emerging technology] says this is a vital first step “to see which sectors are already doing that, and which need assistance or awareness to make sure they take action now.” The US, through NIST, has been holding a contest since 2016 that aims to produce the first quantum-computer-proof algorithms by 2024 […].
As more organizations begin to consider the looming threat, a small and energetic industry has sprouted up, with companies already selling products that promise post-quantum cryptography. But DHS officials have explicitly warned against purchasing them, because there is still no consensus about how such systems will need to work. “No,” the department stated unequivocally in a document (PDF) released last month. “Organizations should wait until strong, standardized commercial solutions are available that implement the upcoming NIST recommendations to ensure interoperability as well as solutions that are strongly vetted and globally acceptable.”