Intel Warns of Data Security Crisis Posed by Quantum Computers

By Agam Shah

May 12, 2022

Quantum computers are coming down the pike, and hardware makers warned of a potential security crisis looming with such superfast systems able to break encryption within a matter of seconds.

To counter that, companies like Intel, Microsoft and IBM — which are also building quantum computers — are looking ahead and building quantum-resistant algorithms to secure systems of the future.

The companies are working with standards organizations like the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to test and finalize newer algorithms that could withstand security attacks from quantum computers, while weeding algorithms that are not effective.

Technologies available today are enough to secure data like credit cards and social security numbers, but it’s time to recognize that the data needs to protected from quantum computers, which could crack advanced encryption in mere seconds, said Greg Lavender, chief technology officer and general manager of Intel’s Software and Advanced Technology Group, during a keynote at the Intel Vision conference being held in Grapevine, Texas.

At risk is public key cryptography, which serves as the foundation for online transactions, which could be easily compromised by quantum computers. Attackers will have the ability to break public key cryptography as quantum systems reach a certain scale and number of qubits.

“Public key crypto is expected to be completely broken due to Shor’s algorithm, and current crypto algorithms will need to be replaced with a new class of quantum resistant algorithms,” Lavender said.

The quantum computer makers are looking to standardize on the crypto-resistant algorithms through agencies like National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“They’re all going through a sort of bake off and slowly winnowing the list down to a smaller subset,” Lavender said.

Conventional algorithms like Grover’s and Shor’s, which have been around for decades, are widely used for quantum computing, with the math well established and provable speed ups. The goal is not to uproot these algorithms, but to investigate multiple approaches, such as taking a hybrid approach that mixes in classical algorithms and quantum approaches, Lavender said in response to a question from HPCwire during a press conference after the keynote.

“The open-source community is already prototyping and experimenting and evaluating these things. In fact, some have…already been attacked and shown to have weaknesses and taken off the list,” Lavender said.

The companies have set a timeline to put out viable quantum-resistant algorithms by 2030, which Lavender dubbed as “Y2Q,” playing off the Y2K crisis.

“While it’s hard to predict the exact timeline, as quantum technology continues to evolve, post-quantum experts are anticipating a moment in the next 8 to 10-plus years, where we as an industry will reach a similar situation as we saw with the infamous Y2K millennium bug,” Lavender said.

The goal is to secure data from attacks by multi-million qubit systems, said Anil Rao, vice president of systems and engineering at the office of Intel’s chief technology officer.

“Although fully capable quantum computers are not yet available today, adversaries can still pose a threat by harvesting today’s encrypted data with lower encryption quality now and decrypting it later when quantum computers are available,” Lavender said.

Intel is taking a three-pronged approach to address these threats posed by the quantum adversary.

The company is addressing the harvesting of encrypted data by increasing key sizes of cryptographic algorithms, both symmetric and asymmetric. One approach is to replace AES 128-bit with AES 256-bit, which provides more protection.

Another approach is to increase the robustness of code-signing applications such as authentication of firmware and software with quantum resistant algorithms, which helps guard against attacks.

Finally, Intel is also working to secure the internet by replacing classical public key crypto algorithms with standardized post quantum crypto algorithms, which includes key encapsulation and digital signature algorithms used in applications that are fundamental to security of transactions on the internet.

Microsoft has four algorithms that are in the running, said Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer of Microsoft Azure, during a panel discussion following Lavender’s keynote.

“We’ve also been working on enabling the use of those algorithms even today with OpenVPN software that applies prominent cryptographically resistant algorithms to VPN connections,” Russinovich said.

People are willing to put their credit card information in apps and on devices, and it is important to have a security apparatus in place soon to protect against quantum attacks, said David Kanter, an analyst at Real World Technologies, at the trade show.

“I think a part of it is having this perspective that ‘we can’t afford to take a step back to the dark ages of whether it is safe to put my credit card online.’ We want to have that be as low friction as possible,” Kanter said.

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