Chinese Breakthrough in Quantum Computing a Warning for Security Teams

China joins Google in claiming quantum supremacy with new technology, ratcheting up RSA decryption concerns.

China’s top quantum-computer researchers have reported that they have achieved quantum supremacy, i.e., the ability to perform tasks a traditional supercomputer cannot. And while it’s a thrilling development, the inevitable rise of quantum computing means security teams are one step closer to facing a threat more formidable than anything before.

Researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China explained in the journal Science they were able to get a system they named Jiuzhang to perform a calculation in minutes that would have taken a traditional supercomputer an estimated 10,000 years to solve.

The team joins Google, which claimed it achieved quantum supremacy in Oct. 2019 using a “supercold, superconducting metal,” according to WIRED. IBM has also entered the quantum computing fray, while leveling criticism against Google’s claims of supremacy.

Now, the Chinese researchers have claimed quantum supremacy using a quantum computation called Gaussian boson sampling (GBS), their paper explained, which uses particles of light sent through an optical circuit, measuring the output. This means there are now multiple proven quantum-computing technologies, with surely more to come.

The security concern is that quantum computers will be able to crack RSA public key cryptography, used to protect data in transit. That means security teams will have to pivot to new post-quantum cryptography solutions. A conservative estimate from a 2019 DigiCert report said teams will need to have protections from quantum computing breaches in place by 2022.

To be clear, quantum computing isn’t there just yet. And the Chinese aren’t any closer to being able to decrypt RSA than Google or IBM, but it’s only a matter of time, according to experts.

“China’s new quantum-computing breakthrough is important for a number of reasons,” Tim Hollebeek, industry and standards technical strategist with DigiCert told Threatpost. “First, China has invested heavily in funding quantum-computing research, and this new result shows that that investment is paying off. Second, it means two different approaches to building a quantum computer have now successfully achieved quantum supremacy. This could potentially speed up the arrival of commercially useful quantum computers, as one approach may succeed if and when the other runs into some technical roadblock.”

Quantum Computing and RSA

John Prisco, from Safe Quantum Inc., said the ability for quantum computing to beat RSA is the goal, not the claims of quantum supremacy.

“China’s GSB approach is interesting but cumbersome to implement,” Prisco told Threatpost. “Quantum supremacy is not the prize at the finish line.  If it were, Google and IBM finished light years ahead of China’s claim. The finish line is a quantum prime computer capable of breaking encryption as we know it.”

He added when it comes to widespread implementation, the Chinese approach has challenges.

“Scaling the GSB approach to quantum prime levels is not likely, due to the enormity of the integration of classical mirrors and beam splitters,” he explained. “Ion trap or super-conducting quantum computers championed by IonQ and IBM respectively are likely to finish the race to a quantum prime computers well ahead of the China approach in this announcement.”

Nonetheless, Hollebeek warned that time is running short for security teams to prepare to combat malicious actors superpowered by quantum computing.

“While such quantum computers are not a threat to encryption today, they do remind us that the day is coming when that will no longer be true,” he said. “It is important that security professionals start planning for the transition to post-quantum cryptography, as such transitions take many years to plan and implement. The Chinese result probably does not materially change predictions of how soon that will be, but leading organizations still expect it to come within the next 10 years or so. So, it is important to start preparing now.”

The reasonable starting place would be a set of standards. But that’s been slow in coming.

Quantum-Computing Standards

The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) hasn’t determined its guidance yet and is currently in a third round of a competition to decide the final Post-Quantum Cryptology standard going forward. The final draft standards aren’t expected to be available until 2022 at the earliest, according to NIST’s tentative timeline.

But while standards are still being hammered out, there are things business and IT teams can do to get prepared, including gaining an understanding of the looming landscape.

“Factorization of large prime numbers (RSA key cracking) by quantum computers is a real and huge problem,” Prisco warned. “Quantum literacy must improve in government agencies and corporations before a quantum prime computer exists. Creating a quantum-safe environment for data security will not occur overnight. ”

Today’s Threat from Quantum Computing

A harvesting attack right now could grab an RSA encryption key to be filed away until quantum computing catches up, he added.

“There is no time to waste, because of other classical security problems like harvesting attacks which occur today,” Prisco said. “A harvesting attack is the theft of encrypted data and the RSA encryption key used to encrypt that data. While the key cannot be hacked today with the currently available quantum computer, an adversary can steal the data and the key, store it inexpensively in memory, and decrypt the info when they have access to a more powerful quantum computer that can break the key.”

April Burdhardt from Quantum Xchage advised that security teams should deploy solutions agile enough to evolve along with both threats and still to-be-determined NIST standards — and they should do it now.

“Companies must start to prepare for the quantum threat now by deploying quantum-safe, crypto-agile solutions that can keep pace with the evolving threat landscape — not to mention guard against harvesting attacks,” Burdhardt told Threatpost. “We encourage companies and government agencies to adopt a multi-layered or defense-in-depth approach to secure-key transfer, protected by NIST post-quantum cryptography-candidate algorithms and/or [quantum key distribution] in a FIPS 140-2 validated implementation.

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