Special Measures To Deal With Quantum Technology

The US Government is planning a new policy to secure its information technology infrastructure against fast-moving development of quantum supercomputers.  President Biden has signed two directives aimed at advancing quantum science, including a memorandum outlining his administration’s plan to address national security risks posed by quantum computers that could be capable of breaking the US Defense Department’s communications encryption. 

“Current research shows that at some point in the not-too-distant future, when quantum information science matures, quantum computers… will be capable of breaking much of the cryptography that currently secures our digital communication,” a senior White House official told reporters.

Quantum computers, one of many quantum information science applications, is a “fundamentally different kind of computer with the ability to analyse information in ways that traditional computers cannot,” according to a White House press release announcing the directives. 

The Presidential memorandum also directs the federal government to protect quantum technologies from theft by criminals and adversaries and initiates collaboration between the federal government and private sector by establishing a “Migration to Post-Quantum Cryptography Project” at the US National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence and an open working group with industry. 

The Washington-based Quantum Alliance Initiative (QAI), is a private sector initiative to promote US leadership  in global quantum computing-enabled security, however, it is known that various state actors,  in other parts off the world, including Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UK and even North Korea, are channelling both public and private investment into developing their own quantum computers as quickly as possible.

Now, President Biden will sign an executive order placing the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, the US government’s independent advisory body for quantum information science and technology, directly under the authority of the White House. 

This action aims to ensure “that the president, Congress, federal departments and agencies and the general public receive the most current, accurate and relevant information on quantum information science and technology to drive forward US policy making in this area,” according to the White House. “The United States has long been a global leader in the development of new technologies, like Quantum Information Science (QIS).

QIS is a broad field of science and engineering. Quantum computers, one of the many promising applications of QIS, are not a replacement to traditional computers. Rather, they are a fundamentally different kind of computer, with the ability to analyse information in ways that traditional computers cannot.  “While QIS itself is not new, recent breakthroughs in QIS have shown the potential to drive innovations across the American economy, from energy to medicine, through advancements in computation, networking and sensing. Breakthroughs in QIS are poised to generate entirely new industries, good-paying jobs, and economic opportunities for all Americans”, says the White House statement. 

The security encryption that operates in the background of current digital technology works essentially like a combination lock. In the same way as a combination lock can be opened with the time and patience needed to try all the possible combinations, so modern encryption can be unlocked with enough computing power.

Quantum technology offers the possibility to perform that task very much faster than conventional computers.

Quantum computers work fundamentally differently than conventional computers. Conventional computers rely on transistors, which form logic gates, basically little switches embedded on chip. In the same way a switch can take one of two positions, on or off, so conventional logic gates can produce one of two values, zero or one. String all of those zeros and ones together and you have modern computer code. But at the quantum atomic level, physics functions differently. It’s possible to create a unit of information called a quantum bit, or qubit, that doesn’t represent either zero or one but both at once.

That promises to make quantum computing much faster than conventional computing, fast enough to open up a very broad range of possibilities for Artificial Intelligence, cryptography and other scientific computations.

Quantum computing is still in its infancy. Experts disagree on how to judge the performance of quantum versus regular computers. But there is agreement that quantum computers that can break extremely complex encryption will arrive at some point and probably this decade. The Executive Order will direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to work with us industry to “generate research on, and encourage widespread, equitable adoption of, quantum-resilient cryptographic standards and technologies.” 

The US government's concern is that even if encrypted data cannot be decrypted on a US quantum computer, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same will be true when that data is run though a quantum computer belonging to a hostile state.

Right now, the US government relies on easily available, relatively cheap, commercial software for many of its IT systems. A change to using extremely expensive bespoke QIS systems will take many years to accomplish and government agencies would continue to rely on the  private sector to help manage what will likely be a very difficult transition. 

The process to transition the US government's  most vulnerable IT systems to QSI standards will take time, money and the patience to endure a lengthy process of updating the current IT infrastructure to protect against the impending threat of quantum computing.

White House:    DefenseOne:   Breaking Defemse:    Business Telegraph:   Marketwatch:   TelecomTV:    Mirage:

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