Biden orders new quantum push to ensure encryption isn't cracked by rivals

Domestic action and international collaboration to make sure you-know-who – OK, China – doesn't get ahead of the game

US president Joe Biden issued two directives on Wednesday aimed at ensuring the nation – and like-minded friends – remain ahead of other countries in the field of quantum computing. Especially as applied to cryptography.

The first directive, an Executive Order, creates a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee comprising up to 26 experts from industry, academia, and federal laboratories – all appointed by the president and under the authority of the White House. The committee is an enhancement to the National Quantum Initiative Act – a 2018 law that provides $1.2 billion and a plan for advancing quantum tech.

The other directive is a memorandum designed to promote US leadership in quantum computing while mitigating risks to cryptographic systems.

The White House explained in a canned statement that recent breakthroughs in Quantum Information Science (QIS) show the tech's potential to "drive innovations across the American economy, from energy to medicine, through advancements in computation, networking and sensing."

It also issued a stark warning:

Research shows that at some point in the not-too-distant future, when quantum computers reach a sufficient size and level of sophistication, they will be capable of breaking much of the cryptography that currently secures our digital communications on the Internet.

The country's National Security Agency (NSA) separately weighed in on the related dangers associated with the fast-advancing technology.

"A cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer could jeopardize civilian and military communications as well as undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure," warned the Agency's director, Paul M. Nakasone in a statement. "The number one defense against this quantum computing threat is to implement quantum-resistant cryptography on our most important systems."

The memorandum lays out a plan for updating IT infrastructure while the country adapts to quantum-resistant cryptographic standards, which are on to-do lists at the US Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) but have not yet been created.

The tasks within the memorandum include items like the NIST's cryptographic standards, establishing requirements for inventorying current systems and creating public sector working groups to promote collaboration. NIST, the NSA and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) all get jobs to do, with deadlines ranging from 90 days to one year.

Although none of the documents mentions China by name, the subtext is that these directives are necessary to compete with the Middle Kingdom as it heavily invests in quantum computing.

In 2020, Chinese physicist Pan Jianwei claimed to have left the US in the dust by using a quantum system to complete in 200 seconds a calculation that the world's mightiest classical computers would chew on for 10,000 years.

Beijing has demanded more breakthroughs in the field of quantum computing by 2030 – a year cited in a US congressional research report as the beginning of the era when conventional encryption will become unsafe when attacked by quantum systems.

Last November, the US sanctioned 28 organizations involved in supporting foreign military quantum computing applications. Twelve of these companies were Chinese.

The Department of Commerce said at the time that eight of those 12 Chinese firms earned their sanctions as part of efforts to prevent US technologies from making their way into the Middle Kingdom's counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications, and their ability to help Beijing's cryptographic development.

"These PRC-based technology entities support the military modernization of the People's Liberation Army and/or acquire and attempt to acquire US origin-items in support of military applications. Today's action will also restrict exports to PRC producers of electronics that the support the People's Liberation Army's military modernization efforts," read the Department's statement at the time. ®

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