The Biden administration is warning that advances in quantum computing will soon shatter cryptographic security, making more digital communications vulnerable to hackers worldwide.
Supercomputers’ improving ability to solve complex mathematical problems will undo the effectiveness of tools and processes used to stymie hackers, according to the administration.
The government’s solution to the looming vulnerability is to develop new rules, make plans for lengthy and costly updates, and to lean on the private sector and academia for help.
“Current research shows that at some point in the not-too-distant future, when quantum information science matures and quantum computers are able to reach a sufficient size and level of sophistication, they will be capable of breaking much of the cryptography that currently secures our digital communications,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters. “The good news is that this is not an insurmountable problem.”
President Biden is issuing a national security memorandum on Wednesday that places requirements on federal agencies to update their information technology systems. The White House said the memo is intended to give a roadmap for agencies needing to update their tech, it directs the agencies to plan for safeguarding their systems, and it pushes the government to collaborate with outsiders to work on the transition to quantum-resilient cryptographic standards.
The senior administration official said the National Institute of Standards and Technology is preparing to publish new cryptographic standards.
“One of the primary purposes of the [memo] is to move the country — the whole country, not just the government — the whole country as quickly as possible to quantum-resistant cryptography,” said another senior administration official to reporters. “And a strong secondary goal is to do that equitably because we realize that this will require changes, upgrades to information technology across the whole spectrum of companies and federal agencies.”
Hackers and cyberattackers have hammered the U.S. in recent years and the Biden administration has scrambled to hunt the culprits and better defend systems. Disruptive hacks by Russian and Chinese adversaries have resulted in the breach of federal networks, such as through the hack of SolarWinds computer network management software that compromised nine federal agencies.
Ransomware attackers have exploited security vulnerabilities to extort payments and wreak havoc, such as through cybercriminals’ 2021 attack on major U.S. fuel supplier Colonial Pipeline that caused panic over concerns of fuel shortages on the east coast.
Asked about the cost of the transition to new standards for better security, a senior administration official said the federal government hopes to reduce the cost through its close work with the private sector from the get-go.
The official said companies rolling out new routers, switches and networking gear will transition to the quantum-resistant gear over time. A second official noted that quantum computers are not needed to build quantum-resistant cryptography and said quantum-resistant algorithms are already under development and deployment.