One Emerging Technology That May Disrupt a Foundational Technology...

One Emerging Technology That May Disrupt a Foundational Technology Layer

Jonathan Behnke, Chief Information Officer, City of San Diego

Jonathan Behnke, Chief Information Officer, City of San Diego

We’ve observed constant disruption in the technology industry over the years. The proliferation of internet commerce, increased computing power and storage, broadband speeds, mobile devices, and advanced analytics have transformed the industry with incredibly fast cycles and changed the fundamentals of how organizations do business. All of these technologies have been universally integrated into most of the technology ecosystem.

Other emerging technologies like blockchain and machine learning have been powerful but have a narrower number of use cases. There is one emerging technology that may start with a limited number of use cases, but its impact may disrupt a foundational technology layer for everyone.

Quantum Computers

Quantum computers are an emerging technology with a significant increase in research and investment over the past few years. They operate differently than classical computers that use ones and zeros for computations. Quantum computers are based on quantum bits or qubits that can take advantage of superposition in the quantum world that represents a distribution of values and can provide powerful computing that is not possible with classical computers.

"A shift to expand online services replacing walk-up services is creating efficiencies for organizations and their customers while improving the customer experience"

Companies like Google and IBM have progressed in the current generation of quantum computers. A higher number of qubits provides more computing power, but the industry faces barriers in developing mainstream products. Quantum computers are subject to errors caused by decoherence in quantum states and can require super-cooled environments to operate. Improvements have been developed in each generation of quantum computers, and the number of qubits has been rising over the past few years. Early use cases for quantum computing include pharmaceutical development, risk management forecasting, data modeling, and chemistry. 

NIST Warns of Risk to Current Cryptography That Has Been Used for Decades

In the 1990s, American mathematician Peter Shor developed a quantum computer algorithm to find prime factors of an integer that could be used to break public key cryptography. In 2015, the National Institute of Standards (NIST) recognized the risk that quantum computers pose to cryptography that has been used to secure the technology ecosystem for decades. NIST has been working with the cryptographic community to develop and standardize new encryption algorithms to replace current algorithms that quantum computers might be able to break.

It May Already Be Too Late 

The threat posed for quantum computers to break cryptography in the coming years would make most think that there is still time to make changes before quantum computers reach a point where they can break current cryptography. Unfortunately, adversaries can already copy and store encrypted data and then use quantum computing in the future to decrypt it. This scenario puts any current and past data at risk if an adversary obtains a copy of it. While this data is already at risk, there are opportunities to make changes and secure data in the future.

NIST Proposes Quantum Resistant Public Key Algorithms 

NIST has been working on new public key algorithms that organizations could use today to protect data in a way that is resistant to the threat posed by quantum computers. After years of work and multiple proposals, four quantum-resistant algorithms have been selected for further analysis. The four algorithms represent the most promising quantum-resistant algorithms for public key encryption and digital signatures. If these algorithms prove to be sound, they can be standardized, and organizations can begin the transformation to secure their most sensitive data.

Recommendations to Prepare

In 2022, the US House of Representatives passed the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act. The legislation is still pending approval by the Senate at the time this article was written, but it shows that preparations are well underway to secure the most sensitive data at the federal level and adopt federal standards to expedite securing systems against the risk posed by quantum computers breaking current encryption standards.

While waiting for the final standards to emerge, organizations can still prepare for this major shift in encryption. The first thing to do is an inventory of your most sensitive data. Quantum computers will be complex and expensive to operate, so adversaries will likely target national security and the most financially promising data sets if/when quantum computers reach the point where they can break public key encryption. Once the final standards are adopted, talk with your major technology partners about roadmaps and begin prioritizing the most critical data.

No one knows if quantum computers will reach the point where they can break public key encryption in the next few years or in 20 years. The risk of all data being decrypted by quantum computers is unimaginable and could cripple entire economies. Implementing quantum-resistant cryptography will, however, reduce this risk and secure data in the future.  

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