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The respected cryptography pioneer, Dr. Whitfield Diffie, has advised that anyone interested in system security should take Quantum Computing Age seriously, as it is not going away anytime soon.

Dr. Diffie, known for his co-invention of public key cryptography and digital signatures and as the winner of the 2015 Turing Award, often regarded as the Nobel Prize of computing, provided both a history lesson and a lecture during his recent keynote speech at SecTor 2022 in Toronto.

In the run-up to the eventual arrival of Quantum Computing Age, Diffie, who invented a new method for distributing cryptographic keys with Stanford University electrical engineering professor Martin Hellman, said it is critical to understand that cryptosystems such as RSA and others are controlled by secret keys: “I want to emphasize the word secret. There is a fundamental issue, which is that if you rely on a secret, you are vulnerable.”

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While cryptography methods have been used for millennia, he claims that cryptography as we know it was created in World War One for two reasons. The first was the rise of radio. This was the first radio-fought battle, and radio, like the internet today, is simply too good to ignore.

The problem, according to Diffie, is that radio has a significant security disadvantage since anybody can listen in.

He compared the present public key cryptosystem area to a racetrack in that it is simple to encrypt – go ahead – but difficult to decode – travel backwards. If you know how long the track is, you can go back one step by moving forward just far enough to get there. You’re screwed if you don’t know.

What is the severity of the situation? Diffie recounted a recent encounter with Adi Shamir, an Israeli cryptographer and co-inventor of the Rivest-Shamir-Adelman (RSA) method.

“Now, I am not the person to ask if quantum computing will really work. That is a matter for the physicists, but big money is going into it, so you need to take it seriously.”

A European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) discussion paper states that the emergence of large-scale quantum computing provides immense potential to research and society but poses a severe danger to our global information infrastructure. Public-key cryptography, commonly used on the internet today, is based on mathematical problems that are thought to be difficult to answer given current and future processing capacity.

However, popular cryptographic techniques based on these difficult challenges, such as RSA and Elliptic Curve cryptography, will be easily cracked by a quantum computer. This will hasten our present security measures’ obsolescence and directly impact every company where information must be kept safe.

Without quantum-safe cryptography and security, any information transferred over public channels – today or in the future – is vulnerable to eavesdropping, ETSI cautions. Even encrypted material that is secure from present attackers can be preserved for later decryption when a realistic quantum computer is available. At the same time, modified data will go unnoticed, making it impossible to ensure the integrity and validity of sent information.

Cryptoanalysis and the standardization of cryptographic algorithms take substantial time and work for their security to be accepted by governments and businesses, according to the group. ETSI is adopting a proactive approach to defining the standards that will safeguard our information as technology advances.

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