(TheVerge) Lily Chen and her team of mathematicians at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology reached out to academic and industry cryptographers around the world in 2016 to find algorithms that could resist new threats posed by quantum computers.
Five years later, the project is almost complete. After three rounds of elimination, Chen and her team have now narrowed the 69 submissions down to a final seven algorithms, with several winners to be named at the end of the year. If things go according to plan, the result will be a new set of NIST-certified algorithms — and a new measure of protection against the chaos of a fully operational quantum computer.
Chen has technical reasons to be concerned. Existing encryption systems rely on specific mathematical equations that classical computers aren’t very good at solving — but quantum computers may breeze through them.
It’s important to establish cryptographic standards now because once NIST standardizes a new cryptographic protocol, it will take years for some users to buy and set up the necessary technology. Another worry is that hackers today could intercept and store encrypted information, and then decrypt the messages a decade later with a quantum computer. This is a particular concern for government agencies that create documents intended to remain classified for years. “We have to try and get these cryptosystems ready well in advance of quantum computers,” says NIST mathematician Dustin Moody, a member of Chen’s team.
When the winning algorithms are chosen, the hope is that NIST’s federal certification will spur more companies to follow suit, and give them a head start in testing and implementing quantum-safe cryptography. Ultimately, NIST researchers see this work as public service. They aim to make these cryptographic standards freely available. The agency doesn’t pay cryptographers to participate in the competition, and winners will not receive any money. “You just get fame in the cryptographic world, which carries its own weight,” says Moody.