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Backward-compatible post-quantum communications is a matter of national security

By Sandra Helsel posted 21 Apr 2022

(DarkReading) Pete Ford, Senior Vice President of Federal Operations, QuSecure has authored this warning article about “Quantum-Day,” or Q-Day, and predicts its will act like a “dirty bomb” on information architecture. IQT-News summarizes.

For standard encryption, Q-Day will occur when a 4,099 coherent qubit machine can complete the nonpolynomial hard factoring on which today’s encryption relies. A quantum computer of this magnitude is not available yet, so the world’s encrypted data is relatively safe for now.
All of these advances push for quantum advantage, meaning the time when a quantum computer exceeds the computing power of today’s supercomputers. However, most projects are closer to quantum practicality, as computer scientists acknowledge. Quantum practicality (sometimes called quantum utility) is when a quantum machine is able to outperform traditional computers of comparable power under similar conditions.

Because of this, the United States — and indeed, every nation — needs backward-compatible quantum resilience now. The US Defense Department hands out awards to contractors that develop or maintain backward compatibility of system hardware and software interfaces. These contracts bring new capabilities to older systems or remedy known limitations for legacy systems (for example, hardening them for continued use). Any post-quantum communication solution that isn’t deeply backward compatible cannot scale in deployment quickly enough and will leave the US vulnerable on Q-Day.
In both the commercial and government worlds, the financial and time cost of updating old software is significant. For the US Government, each fiscal year these obligated stable (sunk) costs are lagging, according to the audit agency; that means they are inadequately funded and falling further behind the innovation curve. This is a big drawback for warfighters. Of the 28 material weaknesses identified in the “Fiscal Year 2021 DoD Agency Financial Report” (up from 26 in the prior year’s report), the top two were legacy systems and configuration management.

Backward Compatibility Is Key
The recent Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus directs funding and policy conditions on most US government agencies’ IT infrastructure and cybersecurity practices. Most of these comprehensive provisions will require the modernization of legacy systems. Even if funding does not allow new systems to replace these legacy systems, a newly developed post-quantum communication protocol can limit threat vulnerability in our legacy systems. These new protocols will help protect our security environment after Q-Day.

Backward compatibility is the foundation on which our resilience must be built to survive Q-Day. Buying and training US forces with this truth in mind means we will be ready.

Sandra K. Helsel, Ph.D. has been researching and reporting on frontier technologies since 1990.  She has her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

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