The White House is sounding the alarm over the threat of quantum computers

Hoping to move the world toward better encryption before the arrival of quantum-powered decryption tools, the White House on Wednesday ordered federal agencies to reconsider their security protocols and reinvigorate efforts to work with the industry on new.

“Current research shows that at some point in the not-too-distant future, when quantum information science matures, quantum computers … will be able to crack much of the cryptography that currently secures our digital communication,” a senior White House official told reporters. tuesday.

Much of the security encryption that runs in the background of digital life essentially works like combination locks. Just as you can open a combination padlock if you have the patience to try all possible combinations, you can crack modern encryption if you have enough computing power and time, but in some cases that means thousands of years.

Quantum computers, however, operate fundamentally differently from conventional computers. Conventional computers rely on transistors, which form logic gates – essentially small switches built into a chip. Similarly, a switch can take one of two positions, on or off, so conventional logic gates can output one of two values, zero or one. String all those zeros and ones together and you have modern computer code.

But at the quantum level, that is, at the atomic level, physics works differently. It is possible to create a unit of information called a quantum bit, or qubit, which represents neither zero nor one but both at the same time. This promises to make quantum computing much faster than conventional computing, fast enough to open up vast new possibilities for artificial intelligence, code breaking, and more.

Quantum computing is still in its infancy. Experts disagree on how to judge the performance of quantum computers compared to ordinary computers. But there is a broad consensus that quantum computers capable of cracking extremely complex encryption will arrive at some point and probably within this decade.

The new National Security Memorandum, or NSM, released by the White House on Wednesday requires federal agencies to bring their encryption up to standard.

“Given the complexity, cost, and time required to fully transition to quantum-resistant cryptographic standards, NSM provides a roadmap for agencies to inventory their IT systems, with an obligation to define and meet specific milestones. This will help ensure that federal agencies get the support they need to fully and effectively protect their networks from future exploitation,” reads a fact sheet the National Security Council provided to reporters.

It also directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to work with industry to “generate research on quantum resilient cryptographic standards and technologies and encourage their widespread and equitable adoption.”

Needless to say, moving the world to a new set of crypto standards won’t come cheap. White House officials said that’s why they want to start working with industry now so that private entities can help develop new encryption tools to withstand the dawn of computing. quantum.

“The public key cryptography used on the Internet is obviously also used in the private sector. So if we go hand in hand to create the new algorithms, create new ways of sharing keys, that will also significantly reduce costs and enable sharing of the new processes and protocols that will have to be put in place to enable that, no only in the United States, but… in the world as well,” the official said.

Fortunately, said another senior White House official, “You don’t need quantum computers to make one of these [new cryptographic standards]. You could design new classic algorithms that work on current routers and networks that are resilient. »