Entries Tagged "quantum computing"

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NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography Standards

Quantum computing is a completely new paradigm for computers. A quantum computer uses quantum properties such as superposition, which allows a qubit (a quantum bit) to be neither 0 nor 1, but something much more complicated. In theory, such a computer can solve problems too complex for conventional computers.

Current quantum computers are still toy prototypes, and the engineering advances required to build a functionally useful quantum computer are somewhere between a few years away and impossible. Even so, we already know that that such a computer could potentially factor large numbers and compute discrete logs, and break the RSA and Diffie-Hellman public-key algorithms in all of the useful key sizes.

Cryptographers hate being rushed into things, which is why NIST began a competition to create a post-quantum cryptographic standard in 2016. The idea is to standardize on both a public-key encryption and digital signature algorithm that is resistant to quantum computing, well before anyone builds a useful quantum computer.

NIST is an old hand at this competitive process, having previously done this with symmetric algorithms (AES in 2001) and hash functions (SHA-3 in 2015). I participated in both of those competitions, and have likened them to demolition derbies. The idea is that participants put their algorithms into the ring, and then we all spend a few years beating on each other’s submissions. Then, with input from the cryptographic community, NIST crowns a winner. It’s a good process, mostly because NIST is both trusted and trustworthy.

In 2017, NIST received eighty-two post-quantum algorithm submissions from all over the world. Sixty-nine were considered complete enough to be Round 1 candidates. Twenty-six advanced to Round 2 in 2019, and seven (plus another eight alternates) were announced as Round 3 finalists in 2020. NIST was poised to make final algorithm selections in 2022, with a plan to have a draft standard available for public comment in 2023.

Cryptanalysis over the competition was brutal. Twenty-five of the Round 1 algorithms were attacked badly enough to remove them from the competition. Another eight were similarly attacked in Round 2. But here’s the real surprise: there were newly published cryptanalysis results against at least four of the Round 3 finalists just months ago—moments before NIST was to make its final decision.

One of the most popular algorithms, Rainbow, was found to be completely broken. Not that it could theoretically be broken with a quantum computer, but that it can be broken today—with an off-the-shelf laptop in just over two days. Three other finalists, Kyber, Saber, and Dilithium, were weakened with new techniques that will probably work against some of the other algorithms as well. (Fun fact: Those three algorithms were broken by the Center of Encryption and Information Security, part of the Israeli Defense Force. This represents the first time a national intelligence organization has published a cryptanalysis result in the open literature. And they had a lot of trouble publishing, as the authors wanted to remain anonymous.)

That was a close call, but it demonstrated that the process is working properly. Remember, this is a demolition derby. The goal is to surface these cryptanalytic results before standardization, which is exactly what happened. At this writing, NIST has chosen a single algorithm for general encryption and three digital-signature algorithms. It has not chosen a public-key encryption algorithm, and there are still four finalists. Check NIST’s webpage on the project for the latest information.

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.

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. We’ve learned the hard way how algorithms can get so entrenched in systems that it can take many years to update them: in the transition from DES to AES, and the transition from MD4 and MD5 to SHA, SHA-1, and then SHA-3.

We need to do better. In the coming years we’ll be facing a double uncertainty. The first is quantum computing. When and if quantum computing becomes a practical reality, we will learn a lot about its strengths and limitations. It took a couple of decades to fully understand von Neumann computer architecture; expect the same learning curve with quantum computing. Our current understanding of quantum computing architecture will change, and that could easily result in new cryptanalytic techniques.

The second uncertainly is in the algorithms themselves. 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.

We can’t stop the development of quantum computing. Maybe the engineering challenges will turn out to be impossible, but it’s not the way to bet. In the face of all that uncertainty, agility is the only way to maintain security.

This essay originally appeared in IEEE Security & Privacy.

EDITED TO ADD: One of the four public-key encryption algorithms selected for further research, SIKE, was just broken.

Posted on August 8, 2022 at 6:20 AMView Comments

SIKE Broken

SIKE is one of the new algorithms that NIST recently added to the post-quantum cryptography competition.

It was just broken, really badly.

We present an efficient key recovery attack on the Supersingular Isogeny Diffie­-Hellman protocol (SIDH), based on a “glue-and-split” theorem due to Kani. Our attack exploits the existence of a small non-scalar endomorphism on the starting curve, and it also relies on the auxiliary torsion point information that Alice and Bob share during the protocol. Our Magma implementation breaks the instantiation SIKEp434, which aims at security level 1 of the Post-Quantum Cryptography standardization process currently ran by NIST, in about one hour on a single core.

News article.

Posted on August 4, 2022 at 6:56 AMView Comments

NIST Announces First Four Quantum-Resistant Cryptographic Algorithms

NIST’s post-quantum computing cryptography standard process is entering its final phases. It announced the first four algorithms:

For general encryption, used when we access secure websites, NIST has selected the CRYSTALS-Kyber algorithm. Among its advantages are comparatively small encryption keys that two parties can exchange easily, as well as its speed of operation.

For digital signatures, often used when we need to verify identities during a digital transaction or to sign a document remotely, NIST has selected the three algorithms CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCON and SPHINCS+ (read as “Sphincs plus”). Reviewers noted the high efficiency of the first two, and NIST recommends CRYSTALS-Dilithium as the primary algorithm, with FALCON for applications that need smaller signatures than Dilithium can provide. The third, SPHINCS+, is somewhat larger and slower than the other two, but it is valuable as a backup for one chief reason: It is based on a different math approach than all three of NIST’s other selections.

NIST has not chosen a public-key encryption standard. The remaining candidates are BIKE, Classic McEliece, HQC, and SIKE.

I have a lot to say on this process, and have written an essay for IEEE Security & Privacy about it. It will be published in a month or so.

Posted on July 6, 2022 at 11:49 AMView Comments

The NSA Says that There are No Known Flaws in NIST’s Quantum-Resistant Algorithms

Rob Joyce, the director of cybersecurity at the NSA, said so in an interview:

The NSA already has classified quantum-resistant algorithms of its own that it developed over many years, said Joyce. But it didn’t enter any of its own in the contest. The agency’s mathematicians, however, worked with NIST to support the process, trying to crack the algorithms in order to test their merit.

“Those candidate algorithms that NIST is running the competitions on all appear strong, secure, and what we need for quantum resistance,” Joyce said. “We’ve worked against all of them to make sure they are solid.”

The purpose of the open, public international scrutiny of the separate NIST algorithms is “to build trust and confidence,” he said.

I believe him. This is what the NSA did with NIST’s candidate algorithms for AES and then for SHA-3. NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization Process looks good.

I still worry about the long-term security of the submissions, though. In 2018, in an essay titled “Cryptography After the Aliens Land,” I wrote:

…there is always the possibility that those algorithms will fall to aliens with better quantum techniques. I am less worried about symmetric cryptography, where Grover’s algorithm is basically an upper limit on quantum improvements, than I am about public-key algorithms based on number theory, which feel more fragile. It’s possible that quantum computers will someday break all of them, even those that today are quantum resistant.

It took us a couple of decades to fully understand von Neumann computer architecture. I’m sure it will take years of working with a functional quantum computer to fully understand the limits of that architecture. And some things that we think of as computationally hard today will turn out not to be.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Since I wrote this, flaws were found in at least four candidates.

Posted on May 16, 2022 at 6:34 AMView Comments

Breaking 256-bit Elliptic Curve Encryption with a Quantum Computer

Researchers have calculated the quantum computer size necessary to break 256-bit elliptic curve public-key cryptography:

Finally, we calculate the number of physical qubits required to break the 256-bit elliptic curve encryption of keys in the Bitcoin network within the small available time frame in which it would actually pose a threat to do so. It would require 317 × 106 physical qubits to break the encryption within one hour using the surface code, a code cycle time of 1 μs, a reaction time of 10 μs, and a physical gate error of 10-3. To instead break the encryption within one day, it would require 13 × 106 physical qubits.

In other words: no time soon. Not even remotely soon. IBM’s largest ever superconducting quantum computer is 127 physical qubits.

Posted on February 9, 2022 at 6:25 AMView Comments

Update on NIST's Post-Quantum Cryptography Program

NIST has posted an update on their post-quantum cryptography program:

After spending more than three years examining new approaches to encryption and data protection that could defeat an assault from a quantum computer, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has winnowed the 69 submissions it initially received down to a final group of 15. NIST has now begun the third round of public review. This “selection round” will help the agency decide on the small subset of these algorithms that will form the core of the first post-quantum cryptography standard.

[…]

For this third round, the organizers have taken the novel step of dividing the remaining candidate algorithms into two groups they call tracks. The first track contains the seven algorithms that appear to have the most promise.

“We’re calling these seven the finalists,” Moody said. “For the most part, they’re general-purpose algorithms that we think could find wide application and be ready to go after the third round.”

The eight alternate algorithms in the second track are those that either might need more time to mature or are tailored to more specific applications. The review process will continue after the third round ends, and eventually some of these second-track candidates could become part of the standard. Because all of the candidates still in play are essentially survivors from the initial group of submissions from 2016, there will also be future consideration of more recently developed ideas, Moody said.

“The likely outcome is that at the end of this third round, we will standardize one or two algorithms for encryption and key establishment, and one or two others for digital signatures,” he said. “But by the time we are finished, the review process will have been going on for five or six years, and someone may have had a good idea in the interim. So we’ll find a way to look at newer approaches too.”

Details are here. This is all excellent work, and exemplifies NIST at its best. The quantum-resistant algorithms will be standardized far in advance of any practical quantum computer, which is how we all want this sort of thing to go.

Posted on July 24, 2020 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Factoring 2048-bit Numbers Using 20 Million Qubits

This theoretical paper shows how to factor 2048-bit RSA moduli with a 20-million qubit quantum computer in eight hours. It’s interesting work, but I don’t want overstate the risk.

We know from Shor’s Algorithm that both factoring and discrete logs are easy to solve on a large, working quantum computer. Both of those are currently beyond our technological abilities. We barely have quantum computers with 50 to 100 qubits. Extending this requires advances not only in the number of qubits we can work with, but in making the system stable enough to read any answers. You’ll hear this called “error rate” or “coherence”—this paper talks about “noise.”

Advances are hard. At this point, we don’t know if they’re “send a man to the moon” hard or “faster-than-light travel” hard. If I were guessing, I would say they’re the former, but still harder than we can accomplish with our current understanding of physics and technology.

I write about all this generally, and in detail, here. (Short summary: Our work on quantum-resistant algorithms is outpacing our work on quantum computers, so we’ll be fine in the short run. But future theoretical work on quantum computing could easily change what “quantum resistant” means, so it’s possible that public-key cryptography will simply not be possible in the long run. That’s not terrible, though; we have a lot of good scalable secret-key systems that do much the same things.)

Posted on October 14, 2019 at 6:58 AMView Comments

Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang Has Quantum Encryption Policy

At least one presidential candidate has a policy about quantum computing and encryption.

It has two basic planks. One: fund quantum-resistant encryption standards. (Note: NIST is already doing this.) Two, fund quantum computing. (Unlike many far more pressing computer security problems, the market seems to be doing this on its own quite nicely.)

Okay, so not the greatest policy—but at least one candidate has a policy. Do any of the other candidates have anything else in this area?

Yang has also talked about blockchain: ”

“I believe that blockchain needs to be a big part of our future,” Yang told a crowded room at the Consensus conference in New York, where he gave a keynote address Wednesday. “If I’m in the White House, oh boy are we going to have some fun in terms of the crypto currency community.”

Okay, so that’s not so great, either. But again, I don’t think anyone else talks about this.

Note: this is not an invitation to talk more general politics. Not even an invitation to explain how good or bad Andrew Yang’s chances are. Or anyone else’s. Please.

Posted on July 12, 2019 at 5:36 AMView Comments

Quantum Computing and Cryptography

Quantum computing is a new way of computing—one that could allow humankind to perform computations that are simply impossible using today’s computing technologies. It allows for very fast searching, something that would break some of the encryption algorithms we use today. And it allows us to easily factor large numbers, something that would break the RSA cryptosystem for any key length.

This is why cryptographers are hard at work designing and analyzing “quantum-resistant” public-key algorithms. Currently, quantum computing is too nascent for cryptographers to be sure of what is secure and what isn’t. But even assuming aliens have developed the technology to its full potential, quantum computing doesn’t spell the end of the world for cryptography. Symmetric cryptography is easy to make quantum-resistant, and we’re working on quantum-resistant public-key algorithms. If public-key cryptography ends up being a temporary anomaly based on our mathematical knowledge and computational ability, we’ll still survive. And if some inconceivable alien technology can break all of cryptography, we still can have secrecy based on information theory—albeit with significant loss of capability.

At its core, cryptography relies on the mathematical quirk that some things are easier to do than to undo. Just as it’s easier to smash a plate than to glue all the pieces back together, it’s much easier to multiply two prime numbers together to obtain one large number than it is to factor that large number back into two prime numbers. Asymmetries of this kind—one-way functions and trap-door one-way functions—underlie all of cryptography.

To encrypt a message, we combine it with a key to form ciphertext. Without the key, reversing the process is more difficult. Not just a little more difficult, but astronomically more difficult. Modern encryption algorithms are so fast that they can secure your entire hard drive without any noticeable slowdown, but that encryption can’t be broken before the heat death of the universe.

With symmetric cryptography—the kind used to encrypt messages, files, and drives—that imbalance is exponential, and is amplified as the keys get larger. Adding one bit of key increases the complexity of encryption by less than a percent (I’m hand-waving here) but doubles the cost to break. So a 256-bit key might seem only twice as complex as a 128-bit key, but (with our current knowledge of mathematics) it’s 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 times harder to break.

Public-key encryption (used primarily for key exchange) and digital signatures are more complicated. Because they rely on hard mathematical problems like factoring, there are more potential tricks to reverse them. So you’ll see key lengths of 2,048 bits for RSA, and 384 bits for algorithms based on elliptic curves. Here again, though, the costs to reverse the algorithms with these key lengths are beyond the current reach of humankind.

This one-wayness is based on our mathematical knowledge. When you hear about a cryptographer “breaking” an algorithm, what happened is that they’ve found a new trick that makes reversing easier. Cryptographers discover new tricks all the time, which is why we tend to use key lengths that are longer than strictly necessary. This is true for both symmetric and public-key algorithms; we’re trying to future-proof them.

Quantum computers promise to upend a lot of this. Because of the way they work, they excel at the sorts of computations necessary to reverse these one-way functions. For symmetric cryptography, this isn’t too bad. Grover’s algorithm shows that a quantum computer speeds up these attacks to effectively halve the key length. This would mean that a 256-bit key is as strong against a quantum computer as a 128-bit key is against a conventional computer; both are secure for the foreseeable future.

For public-key cryptography, the results are more dire. Shor’s algorithm can easily break all of the commonly used public-key algorithms based on both factoring and the discrete logarithm problem. Doubling the key length increases the difficulty to break by a factor of eight. That’s not enough of a sustainable edge.

There are a lot of caveats to those two paragraphs, the biggest of which is that quantum computers capable of doing anything like this don’t currently exist, and no one knows when—or even if ­- we’ll be able to build one. We also don’t know what sorts of practical difficulties will arise when we try to implement Grover’s or Shor’s algorithms for anything but toy key sizes. (Error correction on a quantum computer could easily be an unsurmountable problem.) On the other hand, we don’t know what other techniques will be discovered once people start working with actual quantum computers. My bet is that we will overcome the engineering challenges, and that there will be many advances and new techniques­but they’re going to take time to discover and invent. Just as it took decades for us to get supercomputers in our pockets, it will take decades to work through all the engineering problems necessary to build large-enough quantum computers.

In the short term, cryptographers are putting considerable effort into designing and analyzing quantum-resistant algorithms, and those are likely to remain secure for decades. This is a necessarily slow process, as both good cryptanalysis transitioning standards take time. Luckily, we have time. Practical quantum computing seems to always remain “ten years in the future,” which means no one has any idea.

After that, though, there is always the possibility that those algorithms will fall to aliens with better quantum techniques. I am less worried about symmetric cryptography, where Grover’s algorithm is basically an upper limit on quantum improvements, than I am about public-key algorithms based on number theory, which feel more fragile. It’s possible that quantum computers will someday break all of them, even those that today are quantum resistant.

If that happens, we will face a world without strong public-key cryptography. That would be a huge blow to security and would break a lot of stuff we currently do, but we could adapt. In the 1980s, Kerberos was an all-symmetric authentication and encryption system. More recently, the GSM cellular standard does both authentication and key distribution—at scale—with only symmetric cryptography. Yes, those systems have centralized points of trust and failure, but it’s possible to design other systems that use both secret splitting and secret sharing to minimize that risk. (Imagine that a pair of communicants get a piece of their session key from each of five different key servers.) The ubiquity of communications also makes things easier today. We can use out-of-band protocols where, for example, your phone helps you create a key for your computer. We can use in-person registration for added security, maybe at the store where you buy your smartphone or initialize your Internet service. Advances in hardware may also help to secure keys in this world. I’m not trying to design anything here, only to point out that there are many design possibilities. We know that cryptography is all about trust, and we have a lot more techniques to manage trust than we did in the early years of the Internet. Some important properties like forward secrecy will be blunted and far more complex, but as long as symmetric cryptography still works, we’ll still have security.

It’s a weird future. Maybe the whole idea of number theory­-based encryption, which is what our modern public-key systems are, is a temporary detour based on our incomplete model of computing. Now that our model has expanded to include quantum computing, we might end up back to where we were in the late 1970s and early 1980s: symmetric cryptography, code-based cryptography, Merkle hash signatures. That would be both amusing and ironic.

Yes, I know that quantum key distribution is a potential replacement for public-key cryptography. But come on—does anyone expect a system that requires specialized communications hardware and cables to be useful for anything but niche applications? The future is mobile, always-on, embedded computing devices. Any security for those will necessarily be software only.

There’s one more future scenario to consider, one that doesn’t require a quantum computer. While there are several mathematical theories that underpin the one-wayness we use in cryptography, proving the validity of those theories is in fact one of the great open problems in computer science. Just as it is possible for a smart cryptographer to find a new trick that makes it easier to break a particular algorithm, we might imagine aliens with sufficient mathematical theory to break all encryption algorithms. To us, today, this is ridiculous. Public- key cryptography is all number theory, and potentially vulnerable to more mathematically inclined aliens. Symmetric cryptography is so much nonlinear muddle, so easy to make more complex, and so easy to increase key length, that this future is unimaginable. Consider an AES variant with a 512-bit block and key size, and 128 rounds. Unless mathematics is fundamentally different than our current understanding, that’ll be secure until computers are made of something other than matter and occupy something other than space.

But if the unimaginable happens, that would leave us with cryptography based solely on information theory: one-time pads and their variants. This would be a huge blow to security. One-time pads might be theoretically secure, but in practical terms they are unusable for anything other than specialized niche applications. Today, only crackpots try to build general-use systems based on one-time pads—and cryptographers laugh at them, because they replace algorithm design problems (easy) with key management and physical security problems (much, much harder). In our alien-ridden science-fiction future, we might have nothing else.

Against these godlike aliens, cryptography will be the only technology we can be sure of. Our nukes might refuse to detonate and our fighter jets might fall out of the sky, but we will still be able to communicate securely using one-time pads. There’s an optimism in that.

This essay originally appeared in IEEE Security and Privacy.

Posted on September 14, 2018 at 6:15 AMView Comments

GCHQ on Quantum Key Distribution

The UK’s GCHQ delivers a brutally blunt assessment of quantum key distribution:

QKD protocols address only the problem of agreeing keys for encrypting data. Ubiquitous on-demand modern services (such as verifying identities and data integrity, establishing network sessions, providing access control, and automatic software updates) rely more on authentication and integrity mechanisms—such as digital signatures—than on encryption.

QKD technology cannot replace the flexible authentication mechanisms provided by contemporary public key signatures. QKD also seems unsuitable for some of the grand future challenges such as securing the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, social media, or cloud applications.

I agree with them. It’s a clever idea, but basically useless in practice. I don’t even think it’s anything more than a niche solution in a world where quantum computers have broken our traditional public-key algorithms.

Read the whole thing. It’s short.

Posted on August 1, 2018 at 2:07 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.