Report: China May Steal Encrypted Government Data Now to Decrypt with Quantum Computers Later


A new analysis urges CISO’s to take strategic steps ahead of the advent of quantum computing.

Though they are years from being fully realized, quantum technologies are altering the U.S. cyber threat landscape in serious ways and organizations should start acting now to ensure their infrastructure and data will be protected as the field evolves, according to a new report from Booz Allen Hamilton. 

In the recently released 32-page document, experts warn that China, specifically, has become a major player in quantum computing and will likely soon collect encrypted American data in hopes to eventually decrypt it when the advanced quantum systems go into operation.

“Quantum computing is a rapidly evolving technology with far-reaching disruptive potential, and China is a leading developer of it,” BAH’s Head of Strategic Cyber Threat Intelligence Nate Beach-Westmoreland told Nextgov. “So, Booz Allen wanted to know how and when Chinese cyber threats might be shaped by this change to help our clients manage their changing risk profile.”  

This report is a result of a multi-month collaborative effort, Beach-Westmoreland noted, that blended insights from the firm’s experts in threat intelligence, cybersecurity risk management, and quantum information science.

“Each perspective complemented each other,” he explained. “Quantum scientists cut through the hype and confusion around what quantum computing will enable and when that might happen. Threat analysts identified how different quantum computing capabilities might be used to further Chinese national security, internal security, and economic priorities. Risk advisors saw the actions senior leaders in the government and private sector should be taking now to respond to these threats and future uncertainty, while also seizing on greenfield opportunities.”

Topics covered in the analysis include the state of quantum-computing maturity globally and in China, possible quantum-computing uses and their development timeframes, and the assessed influence of the uses on Chinese threat activity. The ultimate aim is to help readers understand and prepare for real-world risks associated with the advent of quantum. 

Quantum computing “processes information in novel ways by exploiting the unusual physics that exist at a very small scale,” the experts explain in the report. They offer analogies to depict the peculiarities and detail certain problems quantum systems may be good at solving. 

Discussing the global quantum competitive landscape, the officials note that China was a relatively late adopter compared to the U.S., Europe, Japan and others. But beginning in 2016, the nation unleashed a 13-year plan to become a top global innovator in multiple technology areas, including quantum. That led to multibillion dollar investments to enable breakthroughs in the field—and an $11 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. 

The report highlights potential specific technology areas quantum may impact, like secure communications and computational power—as well as China’s advancements in those realms so far. 

“China’s quantum experts and government assess that their country is generally behind the United States in many quantum areas, but aims to surpass it by the mid-2020s,” the officials note. “Based on its current trajectory, it is unlikely that China will surpass the U.S. and Europe as the leaders in fundamental research and development, but it could plausibly lead in developing and deploying early quantum-computing use cases.”

Quantum computers are generally forecasted to outperform classical computers at modeling certain systems by the end of this decade and could then accelerate the discovery of new drugs, high-performance materials, fertilizers and more. In the 2020s, the experts note, “Chinese economic espionage will likely increasingly steal data that could be used to feed” those quantum simulations. They added that though chances are small that the nation will be able to break current generation encryption with quantum computers before 2030, “encrypted data with intelligence longevity”—such as biometric markers, covert source identities, Social Security numbers, and weapons’ designs—could be increasingly stolen with aims to eventually be decrypted.

“While quantum may not pose a direct threat to most organizations for at least a decade, deploying certain critical mitigations like post-quantum encryption will also likely take at least a decade,” Beach-Westmoreland told Nextgov. “This demands that strategies be developed and resources be aligned now in order to prepare.” 

In the report, the experts offer three recommendations for strategic stakeholders and chief information security officers to consider. They suggest conducting threat modeling to assess changes to organizational risk, developing an organizational strategy for deploying post-quantum encryption, and educating personnel about quantum computing to help prevent strategic surprises.

“The government is absolutely key in pushing this change across the federal and commercial space,” Beach-Westmoreland said. “Successful mitigation of this issue will be of vital benefit to core U.S. economic and national security interests.”