Pending National Cyber Strategy to Feature ‘Strong Stand’ on Quantum Cryptography

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An Office of the National Cyber Director official discussed the path of transitioning public and private networks to post-quantum cryptographic standards, and emphasizes data inventory in organizations’ efforts to transition cryptographic systems.

Ahead of the hotly-anticipated release of the first National Cybersecurity Strategy set to be released from the White House Office of the National Cyber Director, Dylan Presman, the office’s director for budget and assessment, confirmed that the framework will include guidance on post-quantum cryptography. 

Discussing the White House’s plans to fortify classical digital networks against the onset of strong quantum computing algorithms, Presman said that the impending National Cyber Framework “will take a strong stand on quantum, especially on the transition to post-quantum cryptography.”

Quantum computers, which use the principles of quantum physics to rapidly process higher volumes of data in a precise manner, will likely usher in a new era of cybersecurity as classical computer’s information processing and data security will lag in comparison. 

“This is going to have amazing transformational qualities for our society and amazing opportunities, but also we do need to take these steps to secure ourselves from adversaries,” he said.

Presman divulged this feature of the pending cyber framework while speaking during an Advanced Technology Academic Research Center discussion. He explained that as technologies based on the principles of quantum physics—namely quantum computing and quantum sensing—will increase in the coming years, both the government and industry need to safeguard their sensitive data now.

“It's not just about when quantum computers will be ready,” Presman said. “It's about the shelf life of data.” Presman clarified that, should an entity want to secure its classified data—such as medical or personal information—indefinitely, it needs to begin to implement post-quantum cryptography well before the advent of quantum computing.

“To be perfectly clear, time is already running short on putting in place systems to secure our classical computing computers,” he said, citing bad actors’ “harvest now, decrypt later” plans as a simple method to fight classical network cryptography, regardless of the availability of a quantum computer.  

As other experts in the field have previously stated, transitioning systems and networks from standard encryption to a robust and secure post-quantum cryptography is critical. Presman noted that while the federal government has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to this, tasking agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Security Agency with distinct assignments, the transition will take time.

“Upgrading networks and systems [to] quantum resistant algorithms, in order to meet the threat, will take significant time and money,” he said. “This is not something that is routine. Transitioning cryptographic systems doesn't happen very often.”

Among the necessary steps private and public sector entities will need to follow, even prior to transitioning cryptographic standards, is to take a thorough inventory of data. Understanding what sensitive data is frequently moving through organizations’ networks is important for scaling a new cryptographic system to transitioning digital systems. 

“That is going to be a heavy lift for all involved. There's no question about it,” he said. Presman noted that some automation tools and technologies are in development or are already available to simplify this process for both government and industry institutions.

Taking an inventory of the exact technologies––both hardware and software––will also be required prior to transitioning to post-quantum cryptographic systems. Presman specified that some hardware devices included in legacy technology systems are hardwired with classical cryptography, and may need to be retired altogether. 

Presman advised that organizations ready to take inventory of their digital systems should begin by prioritizing which networks process and store the most sensitive data, and begin the transition there.

“Frankly, we're not going to get everything done at once. And so it will be critical that we identify the most sensitive systems, the most important and the highest priority for transition,” he said.

The path to shifting from classical to post-quantum cryptography will become clearer into 2023 and 2024, as NIST continues developing quantum-resistant algorithms for implementation. Presman added that adjacent standards are set to come out toward the end of 2023 to guide organizations’ transition process.