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Amazon, IBM Move Swiftly on Post-Quantum Cryptographic Algorithms Selected by NIST

A month after the algorithms were revealed, some companies have already begun incorporating the future standards into their products and services.

A month after the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) revealed the first quantum-safe algorithms, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and IBM have swiftly moved forward. Google was also quick to outline an aggressive implementation plan for its cloud service that it started a decade ago.

It helps that IBM researchers contributed to three of the four algorithms, while AWS had a hand in one. Google is also among those who contributed to SPHINCS+.

A long process that started in 2016 with 69 original candidates ends with the selection of four algorithms that will become NIST standards, which will play a critical role in protecting encrypted data from the vast power of quantum computers.

NIST's four choices include CRYSTALS-Kyber, a public-private key-encapsulation mechanism (KEM) for general asymmetric encryption, such as when connecting websites. For digital signatures, NIST selected CRYSTALS-Dilithium, FALCON, and SPHINCS+. NIST will add a few more algorithms to the mix in two years.

Vadim Lyubashevsky, a cryptographer who works in IBM's Zurich Research Laboratories, contributed to the development of CRYSTALS-Kyber, CRYSTALS-Dilithium, and Falcon. Lyubashevsky was predictably pleased by the algorithms selected, but he had only anticipated NIST would pick two digital signature candidates rather than three.

Ideally, NIST would have chosen a second key establishment algorithm, according to Lyubashevsky. "They could have chosen one more right away just to be safe," he told Dark Reading. "I think some people expected McEliece to be chosen, but maybe NIST decided to hold off for two years to see what the backup should be to Kyber."

IBM's New Mainframe Supports NIST-Selected Algorithms

After NIST identified the algorithms, IBM moved forward by specifying them into its recently launched z16 mainframe. IBM introduced the z16 in April, calling it the "first quantum-safe system," enabled by its new Crypto Express 8S card and APIs that provide access to the NIST APIs.

IBM was championing three of the algorithms that NIST selected, so IBM had already included them in the z16. Since IBM had unveiled the z16 before the NIST decision, the company implemented the algorithms into the new system. IBM last week made it official that the z16 supports the algorithms.

Anne Dames, an IBM distinguished engineer who works on the company's z Systems team, explained that the Crypto Express 8S card could implement various cryptographic algorithms. Nevertheless, IBM was betting on CRYSTAL-Kyber and Dilithium, according to Dames.

"We are very fortunate in that it went in the direction we hoped it would go," she told Dark Reading. "And because we chose to implement CRYSTALS-Kyber and CRYSTALS-Dilithium in the hardware security module, which allows clients to get access to it, the firmware in that hardware security module can be updated. So, if other algorithms were selected, then we would add them to our roadmap for inclusion of those algorithms for the future."

A software library on the system allows application and infrastructure developers to incorporate APIs so that clients can generate quantum-safe digital signatures for both classic computing systems and quantum computers.

"We also have a CRYSTALS-Kyber interface in place so that we can generate a key and provide it wrapped by a Kyber key so that could be used in a potential key exchange scheme," Dames said. "And we've also incorporated some APIs that allow clients to have a key exchange scheme between two parties."

Dames noted that clients might use Dilithium to generate digital signatures on documents. "Think about code signing servers, things like that, or documents signing services, where people would like to actually use the digital signature capability to ensure the authenticity of the document or of the code that's being used," she said.

AWS Engineers Algorithms Into Services

During Amazon's AWS re:Inforce security conference last week in Boston, the cloud provider emphasized its post-quantum cryptography (PQC) efforts. According to Margaret Salter, director of applied cryptography at AWS, Amazon is already engineering the NIST standards into its services.

During a breakout session on AWS' cryptography efforts at the conference, Salter said AWS had implemented an open source, hybrid post-quantum key exchange based on a specification called s2n-tls, which implements the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol across different AWS services. AWS has contributed it as a draft standard to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Salter explained that the hybrid key exchange brings together its traditional key exchanges while enabling post-quantum security. "We have regular key exchanges that we've been using for years and years to protect data," she said. "We don't want to get rid of those; we're just going to enhance them by adding a public key exchange on top of it. And using both of those, you have traditional security, plus post quantum security."

Last week, Amazon announced that it deployed s2n-tls, the hybrid post-quantum TLS with CRYSTALS-Kyber, which connects to the AWS Key Management Service (AWS KMS) and AWS Certificate Manager (ACM). In an update this week, Amazon documented its stated support for AWS Secrets Manager, a service for managing, rotating, and retrieving database credentials and API keys.

Google's Decade-Long PQC Migration

While Google didn't make implementation announcements like AWS in the immediate aftermath of NIST's selection, VP and CISO Phil Venables said Google has been focused on PQC algorithms "beyond theoretical implementations" for over a decade. Venables was among several prominent researchers who co-authored a technical paper outlining the urgency of adopting PQC strategies. The peer-reviewed paper was published in May by Nature, a respected journal for the science and technology communities.

"At Google, we're well into a multi-year effort to migrate to post-quantum cryptography that is designed to address both immediate and long-term risks to protect sensitive information," Venables wrote in a blog post published following the NIST announcement. "We have one goal: ensure that Google is PQC ready."

Venables recalled an experiment in 2016 with Chrome where a minimal number of connections from the Web browser to Google servers used a post-quantum key-exchange algorithm alongside the existing elliptic-curve key-exchange algorithm. "By adding a post-quantum algorithm in a hybrid mode with the existing key exchange, we were able to test its implementation without affecting user security," Venables noted.

Google and Cloudflare announced a "wide-scale post-quantum experiment" in 2019 implementing two post-quantum key exchanges, "integrated into Cloudflare's TLS stack, and deployed the implementation on edge servers and in Chrome Canary clients." The experiment helped Google understand the implications of deploying two post-quantum key agreements with TLS.

Venables noted that last year Google tested post-quantum confidentiality in TLS and found that various network products were not compatible with post-quantum TLS. "We were able to work with the vendor so that the issue was fixed in future firmware updates," he said. "By experimenting early, we resolved this issue for future deployments."

Other Standards Efforts

The four algorithms NIST announced are an important milestone in advancing PQC, but there's other work to be done besides quantum-safe encryption. The AWS TLS submission to the IETF is one example; others include such efforts as Hybrid PQ VPN.

"What you will see happening is those organizations that work on TLS protocols, or SSH, or VPN type protocols, will now come together and put together proposals which they will evaluate in their communities to determine what's best and which protocols should be updated, how the certificates should be defined, and things like things like that," IBM's Dames said.

Dustin Moody, a mathematician at NIST who leads its PQC project, shared a similar view during a panel discussion at the RSA Conference in June. "There's been a lot of global cooperation with our NIST process, rather than fracturing of the effort and coming up with a lot of different algorithms," Moody said. "We've seen most countries and standards organizations waiting to see what comes out of our nice progress on this process, as well as participating in that. And we see that as a very good sign."

Editors' Choice
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
Dark Reading Staff, Dark Reading
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading