You Can’t Rush Post-Quantum-Computing Cryptography Standards
I just read an article complaining that NIST is taking too long in finalizing its post-quantum-computing cryptography standards.
This process has been going on since 2016, and since that time there has been a huge increase in quantum technology and an equally large increase in quantum understanding and interest. Yet seven years later, we have only four algorithms, although last week NIST announced that a number of other candidates are under consideration, a process that is expected to take “several years.
The delay in developing quantum-resistant algorithms is especially troubling given the time it will take to get those products to market. It generally takes four to six years with a new standard for a vendor to develop an ASIC to implement the standard, and it then takes time for the vendor to get the product validated, which seems to be taking a troubling amount of time.
Yes, the process will take several years, and you really don’t want to rush it. I wrote this last year:
Ian Cassels, British mathematician and World War II cryptanalyst, once said that “cryptography is a mixture of mathematics and muddle, and without the muddle the mathematics can be used against you.” This mixture is particularly difficult to achieve with public-key algorithms, which rely on the mathematics for their security in a way that symmetric algorithms do not. We got lucky with RSA and related algorithms: their mathematics hinge on the problem of factoring, which turned out to be robustly difficult. Post-quantum algorithms rely on other mathematical disciplines and problems—code-based cryptography, hash-based cryptography, lattice-based cryptography, multivariate cryptography, and so on—whose mathematics are both more complicated and less well-understood. We’re seeing these breaks because those core mathematical problems aren’t nearly as well-studied as factoring is.
As the new cryptanalytic results demonstrate, we’re still learning a lot about how to turn hard mathematical problems into public-key cryptosystems. We have too much math and an inability to add more muddle, and that results in algorithms that are vulnerable to advances in mathematics. More cryptanalytic results are coming, and more algorithms are going to be broken.
As to the long time it takes to get new encryption products to market, work on shortening it:
The moral is the need for cryptographic agility. It’s not enough to implement a single standard; it’s vital that our systems be able to easily swap in new algorithms when required.
Whatever NIST comes up with, expect that it will get broken sooner than we all want. It’s the nature of these trap-door functions we’re using for public-key cryptography.