Despite the fact that the practical application of quantum cryptography is well over a decade away, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has requested public input and proposals regarding the development of quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms.
For some context, while modern day computers pass and conceal information through the use of bits (1s and 0s – on and off respectively), quantum computers operate with qubits. Qubits antiquate current bit functionalities because they can exist on, off, or in both states simultaneously. This allows for the factoring of large numbers in far less time than a standard computer.
Because of this, current encryption algorithms that could take centuries to solve would become obsolete; for with quantum cryptography, the process is reduced to mere minutes. This would essentially overwhelm current encrypted communications—compromising and exposing critical data. And while the advancement of quantum computing is exciting and filled with much promise, if and when it does become mainstream, existing network infrastructures will have to be entirely reconfigured.
While fully functioning quantum systems are a distant reality, NIST recognizes the impending implications of something with such strength and the need for preventative and resistant cryptography. The goal is to ensure that all systems can defend against breach attempts—both standard and quantum—before it’s too late.
The research and development of quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms will take years, with NIST’s initial deadline for submissions set for November 2017. Throughout the following three to five years, trials will take place in order to identify the proposal with most potential for practical use.
At first glance, it may seem like NIST’s request is a bit premature; however, one cannot fully understand or predict the performance of a system until it has been tested in the wild. Unforeseen glitches and miscalculations could occur with catastrophic results. It is important to develop and test this technology before a nation state or malicious actor obtains the capability to exploit quantum cryptography, using it not as a shield, but as a weapon. While quantum cryptography has many hurdles to overcome, in many ways it is also stronger than current standards. The actual implementation of this technology, however, will likely not be without its difficulties. It will be interesting to observe NIST’s progress as this project transpires.