Commercial Availability, Consequences Best Approach for Post-Quantum Transition

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Ann Cox, the lead at the Department of Homeland Security’s research office, emphasized community engagement and technological needs for a successful quantum-resilient future.

The technological research arm of the Department of Homeland Security is working to better understand what it will take for a successful transition to post-quantum cryptography across all agency components, focusing on education and use case testing. 

Ann Cox, the technical lead at DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, spoke with Nextgov about her office’s initiatives surrounding quantum technologies, particularly how to best usher in a widespread migration to secure post-quantum cryptography prior to the advent of working quantum computers.

Describing quantum technologies as both a threat and a promise, Cox said the migration for public and private sector networks will require a large overhaul of the equipment to evaluate if it is capable of functioning securely with future quantum machines. 

“We need to inventory our networks and look at what devices currently use cryptography,” she said. “You look at the equipment, you look at the algorithms in use, you look and see if that equipment happens to be what they called ‘crypto agile’, meaning that you can actually replace that algorithm with one that is quantum-resistant.”

DHS is one of the agencies with a structured plan to transition to quantum-resilient machines and technology, once the best practice standards are finalized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology by 2024. 

Synching the availability of quantum-resilient commercial technological products and NIST standards will be key to the widespread adoption of post-quantum cryptography, Cox said, along with incentives to ensure everyone makes the transition. 

“The best way to do this is to have commercial products that are NIST-compliant, and that we've purchased those and put them in place as they're available,” she said. “I don't think it's going to work to have either a massive push to transition to post-quantum encryption or just say ‘you got to do this.’ There's got to be some kind of a follow-up. And consequences if we don't.”

While post-quantum encryption technology and algorithms are still in development, Cox’s office has been researching and examining where the technology is likely to make an impact.

As the largest law enforcement organization in the country, DHS is focused on how quantum technologies will impact this specific sector. Cox said the S&T is overseeing use case studies cross-departmentally with entities such as the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to study how quantum computing stands to impact these industries. 

Cox also discussed her office’s education initiatives, mainly through a Quantum Information Science Community of Interest forum hosted across all DHS elements. She said the attendance has steadily grown as more people want to learn about how quantum can impact their work.

“We've…talked about quantum sensing, quantum computing, quantum simulation, quantum networks,” she said. The S&T is engaging with private sector companies as well as academia to further research in these areas.