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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

We probably have as much as a decade before quantum computers pose a threat to the encryption systems that sit at the foundation of contemporary cybersecurity. But we'd better start strengthening that foundation now if we hope to protect it down the road, experts say.

Why it matters: Encryption is critical for economic and national security, protecting trade secrets, communications, and classified information.

The big picture: Quantum computers, which take advantage of the spooky weirdness of quantum mechanics, can solve certain types of complex problems in fewer steps than a traditional microprocessor (or, for that matter, a human). One of those problems is reading data that's been protected by any of several common encryption algorithms.

The catch: Ask most of the rank and file working in cybersecurity, and they’ll tell you that quantum computing is more a topic for barroom conversation than an imminent threat.

  • For the most part, people who work in cybersecurity are concerned with how people can steal data today or tomorrow.
  • Quantum computing, which is still in the early stages of development, could take 10 years to be a real threat to systems — and may never get to that point.
  • People in the field have a sense that there's still time before this has to be a front-of-mind concern.

But, but, but: While it could take a decade to develop a quantum system that attackers could use to crack our codes, it could take nearly as long for defenders to migrate from vulnerable algorithms to new systems based on quantum-safe encryption.

  • Changing encryption algorithms takes an incredible amount of effort. Brian LaMacchia, who works on post-quantum cryptography at Microsoft, notes that the last time an industry-wide change took place, Microsoft included the new algorithm in Vista, the 2006 edition of Windows — and the industry still hasn't fully completed that transition.
  • Software relies on layers of code dependent on other code, and the more layers there are, the more complex it is to update those systems. There are many more layers stacked on top of encryption than ever before, making this migration the most complicated one yet, LaMacchia said.
  • While some encryption algorithms can be made quantum-safe with only minor changes, any software using any type of encryption will need to updated.

The timing: Complicating matters further, while quantum computers may be a decade away, data encrypted today may need to be secret for more than a decade. So while we may not go toe to toe with quantum computers until much later, we need to start using post-quantum encryption now.

  • "We still have information about the John F. Kennedy assassination kept classified," said Steve Grobman, CTO of McAfee. "Some secrets have a long shelf life."
  • And systems will likely be at risk before we're told they are at risk. "If a government develops quantum computing well in advance of its peers, it will keep it a secret, just like the allies did when they cracked Enigma," said LaMacchia.

Next steps: Lawmakers, including Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), are pushing for greater U.S. investment in quantum research.

  • "Quantum capabilities will likely define hegemony in this century’s increasingly digital, interconnected economy, and the U.S. cannot abdicate our leadership in this crucial field," said Hurd.

Go deeper

Updated 55 mins ago - Politics & Policy

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

The House voted 220 to 212 on Wednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans plan to exact pain before COVID relief vote

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

The new grifters: outrage profiteers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Republicans lost the Senate and narrowly missed retaking the House, millions of dollars in grassroots donations were diverted to a handful of 2020 congressional campaigns challenging high-profile Democrats that, realistically, were never going to succeed.

Why it matters: Call it the outrage-industrial complex. Slick fundraising consultants market candidates contesting some of their party’s most reviled opponents. Well-meaning donors pour money into dead-end campaigns instead of competitive contests. The only winner is the consultants.

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