Quantum computing capabilities are already impacting your organization. While data encryption and operational disruption have long troubled Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs), the threat posed by emerging quantum computing capabilities is far more profound and immediate.

Indeed, quantum computing poses an existential risk to the classical encryption protocols that enable virtually all digital transactions. Over the next several years, widespread data encryption mechanisms, such as public-key cryptography (PKC), could become vulnerable.

Any classically encrypted communication could be wiretapped and is potentially subject to data exfiltration once quantum decryption solutions are viable. These tactics are referred to as “harvest now, decrypt later” attacks.

As such, ensuring that data encryption remains secure requires our urgent attention — even before quantum computing solutions become generally available. Even if some data is irrelevant or quickly loses its value to threat actors, data related to national security, infrastructure, medical records, intellectual capital, and more could well retain or increase in value over time — see Figure 1. As an executive at one European bank told us, “We want to keep our data forever confidential.”

While the simple exposure of data is a threat, risk scenarios escalate from there. We use cryptography to protect communications networks, verify electronic transactions, and secure digital evidence. And today’s smart automobiles and airplanes rely upon highly connected digital ecosystems, with decades of service life ahead of them. Even critical infrastructure systems, traditionally segregated from digital networks, depend increasingly on over-the-air updates and Internet of Things (IoT) field data capture capabilities.

Figure 1 — Data type retention requirements (Sources: CalChamber Alert, AHIMA, JMA Journal, Total HIPAA, IRS)

With the power of quantum computing behind them, adversaries could craft fraudulent identities for websites and create fake software downloads and updates. Cybercriminals could launch extortion attacks by threatening to disclose harvested data. They could design fake land records or lease documents indistinguishable from digitally encrypted originals. Considering that the digital economy is estimated to be worth $20.8 trillion by 2025, the repercussions could be staggering.

Make no mistake. The impact is coming — and it’s not a question of if, but how soon and how disruptive. But there’s hopeful news, too. As we’ll explore, researchers are actively developing quantum-safe remediation techniques and algorithms. The ultimate goal? For organizations — and society — to reap the substantial benefits of quantum computing’s power, while simultaneously shielding against the same technologies when used by cyber adversaries.

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Securing mission-critical infrastructure today

The earliest adopters of quantum-driven cryptography solutions are likely to be sophisticated threat actors (think nation-states) applying quantum computing’s potential to crack today’s cryptography. For industries operating critical infrastructure, the stakes are high.

In a May 2022 memo, the US government warned, “When it becomes available, a cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC) could jeopardize civilian and military communications, undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure, and defeat security protocols for most Internet-based financial transactions.” Cybersecurity experts, their business counterparts, and laypeople alike are increasingly on alert.

Consider RSA-2048, a widely used public-key cryptosystem that facilitates secure data transmission. In a 2021 survey, most leading authorities believed that quantum computers could crack RCA-2048 within 24 hours. How soon that might happen is a matter of debate. But the question of when cryptography will be broken by quantum computing can be misleading, as it implies a specific threshold date that leaders can anticipate. Add the troubling truth that implementing solutions and safeguards can take longer than expected, and technology leaders need to recognize the urgent need to act now.

The open question: can they convince their line of business peers there is a business benefit in doing so?

To further explore this urgent security topic, read the Security in the Quantum Era report from the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV), from which this blog post is excerpted. The report provides an in-depth analysis of the quantum security landscape and presents a compelling case for developing “quantum-safe” strategies today — for maintaining the integrity and security of highly sensitive data now and into the future. Additionally, the report maps out a clear path for how organizations can work across their entire ecosystem to protect data from cybercriminals intent on exploiting the power of quantum computers.

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