Is Government Ready for the Brewing Quantum Storm?

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Like with any storm, preparation is key.

Now is the time of year when much of the country listens intently to their local weather forecasts, hoping that they can survive another wintery week without ice and snow piling up too much. Those of us who live in areas that see accumulations know about the rush at supermarkets and other stores that happens following one of those “Snowmageddon” predictions. Even talk of a few inches of powder is likely to cause a run on milk, bread and toilet paper.

In the world of government technology, predictions can also have some sway, though government is often slow to react to emerging trends. That can be a good thing because we don’t want our government wasting resources by chasing all of the latest fads. But it can also be bad if our inaction puts our technology or communications in a weaker spot for not being prepared. For the emerging science of quantum computing, the alarm bells are reaching a tipping point where further inaction becomes less about being cautious and more about being foolish.

Recently, there have been two more clear signs that quantum computing is real, and will likely change the way we use computers and technology in the future. The first is the long-awaited report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on quantum computing prospects. The report states that although there is still a lot of work to do in the field, given our current technology levels, there is “no fundamental reason why a large, fault-tolerant quantum computer could not be built in principle.”

Research firm Gartner also included quantum computing in its list of strategic technologies for 2019. Brian Burke, chief of research for Gartner, recently told a symposium audience that by 2023, up to 20 percent of organizations around the world will be budgeting for quantum computing projects, up from less than one percent today.

Quantum computing and the threat it poses to core elements of cybersecurity, specifically its ability to break encryption, is not something that will happen overnight. So this is more of a Farmer’s Almanac forecast of a long winter than a pending storm. Google, through its partnership with NASA, seems to be furthest ahead in developing fast quantum computers, with its race toward what it calls “quantum supremacy,” meaning that it will make a quantum computer that is faster than anything else around today.

That goal may be mere months away, though experts say it won't make much immediate difference in terms of threats to government encryption. “As organizations like Google promote their journey towards ‘quantum supremacy,’ should it ever be achieved, the actual impact of this on cybersecurity is often misunderstood,” says John Prisco, CEO of Quantum Xchange, one of the leading companies developing technology based on quantum science. “Supremacy would mean that a quantum computer is faster than every traditional system on Earth—but supercomputers can’t crack RSA2048 encryption even if you give them a few billion years to try, so a ‘quantum supremacy’ machine won’t be able to either.”

That is not to say that quantum computing should be ignored. Quite the opposite. The danger is that secret, encrypted data can be mined and stored today, and broken over the next decade when a sufficiently advanced quantum computer is finally developed. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is aware of that danger and has already collected over 70 quantum resistant algorithms for evaluation. Now the government needs to pick the best ones and start implementing them.

“Military, clandestine and civilian areas of government could be affected if quantum science becomes an afterthought to the current administration,” Prisco said. “Many leaders in the quantum space, including myself, consider advances in quantum science to be as important as previous national contests such as the arms or space race.”

The one drawback to developing quantum defenses was pointed out by my good friend and fellow technologist, William Jackson, in his Cybereye column this week. He notes that spending government money and resources on preventing quantum computers from breaking down encryption might slow the development of quantum science. “The existence of cryptographic algorithms that are believed to be quantum-resistant will reduce the usefulness of a quantum computer for cryptanalysis,” Jackson notes. And that could curb the desire, at least somewhat, to develop the technology.

Others argue that some of those technologies already exist, which has done nothing to dampen the world’s hunger for better quantum engines. “Solutions like Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), which uses existing quantum computing technology to secure encrypted transmissions, can be used for strengthened security right now,” Prisco said. “The latest QKD technology secures channels for critical communications, enabling organizations to send unbreakable encryption keys over any distance. It’s not weakened by quantum computing advances, mathematical discoveries or massive parallel computing networks.”

At the very least, it’s nice to see the government making some preparations for the pending quantum storm. It may take years before we finally see the kind of advanced quantum computers previously only found in science-fiction stories, but they are on their way. And when they arrive, those nations that survive the disruption unscathed will be the ones that smartly prepared for that inevitable future.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys