'Harvesting Attacks' & the Quantum Revolution

Stockpiles of stolen information sitting in foreign databases are ready to be exposed the minute there's a working quantum computer in five to ten years. The time to act is now.

The Information Age replaced industrial equipment with data. Today, data isn't just information; it's process and interaction. Software commands robots to build things in factories. Sensors in fields trigger watering when crops are too dry. Code runs power plants. We're developing smart cars and smart cities. And it's all connected to the Internet — the Internet of Things.

But with this progress comes a pitfall: the opportunity for nation-state hackers to beat even our best cybersecurity systems and steal everything from source code to aeronautical blueprints, and have the ability to damage into the physical world as never before.

Attackers constantly find their way into sensitive networks around the globe. Hackers working for China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other nations are doing reconnaissance, stealing data, and hiding backdoors and malware in the networks of US agencies and military contractors, nuclear power plants and dams, banks, and Nasdaq. Russia shut down the Ukraine electric grid two years in a row. The US allegedly attacked Russia's electric power grid, and a decade ago Stuxnet crippled Iran's nuclear program. These attacks have affected people's lives — such as turning Ukrainian cities dark for days. Not only do such attacks put sensitive data and intellectual property at risk, but the chances of an attack that could shut down systems that citizens rely on to survive are only increasing.  

In the cat-and-mouse game between cybersecurity and cybercriminals (nation-state or otherwise), a game-changer is in the near future: quantum computing, which is potentially capable of cracking even the most advanced conventional encryption. The US and China are in a heated race to develop quantum computing, which will revolutionize the industry, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence, medicine, and scientific modeling.

Alongside these benefits is a danger from quantum computing that most people don't realize is here, now, even though the quantum computers aren't ready yet. This is because encrypted information stolen by China from the US government and industry is being stockpiled by China. Cheap data storage and the proliferation of valuable data online increases the feasibility and incentive for long-term storage of even the most solidly encrypted data. This offensive strategy is known as a harvesting attack. Encryption protects everything from classified data to the operations of power plants, water supplies, and financial trading systems. Once quantum computers are available, not only will the most critical data be exposed, but quantum-powered attacks will be able to interfere with important cyber-controlled processes as well. Cloaked secrets will be revealed and physical equipment will be manipulated remotely. 

We Need to Get Moving
It may be too late for much of the data that's already been intercepted, but we can work to protect more of our data going forward — but only if the government takes this threat seriously.

The National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA), which was signed into law in December, commits $1.2 billion to fund quantum science and computing efforts over five years to be divided between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy (DoE), and the National Science Foundation. None of the money has yet been appropriated. Meanwhile, China is building a $10 billion quantum research lab that is slated to open next year.

The US needs to move quickly and invest in tech companies and startups that aren't hampered by bureaucracy and are efficient with go-to-market strategies. It can take a decade or more to get research from the lab to the market. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency within the DoE has provided grants to independent cybersecurity researchers and startups to develop defenses for smart car security, voting machines, and other areas. Given the implications of crypto-breaking quantum computers for the defense industry, it makes sense for it to fund quantum defense as well.

A number of universities are doing important research and development of quantum computing, including MIT, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the University of Cambridge in England. NIST is working on post-quantum cryptography designed to protect against quantum computer attacks. And the DoE is doing great research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the use of quantum computing to protect the electric grid, which is potentially the biggest risk we face in a post-quantum world. But we need more researchers tackling all the various problems from more of the best minds and labs around the country. Once the NQIA funding is appropriated some grant money will flow to universities, but it will only be a piece of the overall $1.2 billion. Whatever it is, it needs to be more.

There are some quantum efforts that are in operation today, but they involve hardware as opposed to cryptographic algorithms, which can be broken. The Swiss government has been protecting its national elections with quantum key distribution (QKD), a quantum-based method for preventing the interception of encryption keys, for 12 years. However, here too, China is ahead — with a 2,000-kilometer QKD fiber network and a quantum science satellite that was launched in 2016.

Given what's at stake — and the stockpiles of stolen information already sitting in foreign databases that will be exposed the minute there's a working quantum computer — we don't have time to spare. That is estimated to be five to ten years away, and the quantum clock is ticking.

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Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5