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Cybersecurity in the Quantum Age

IBM’s Anne Dames and NIST’s Andrew Regenscheid offer key cybersecurity considerations as the quantum computing era approaches

The future of the mainframe holds substantial promise as well as significant challenges. As just one example of what lies ahead, consider the ongoing development of quantum computing.

IBM currently manufactures quantum hardware. Its roadmap, which lists major releases and details the technology milestones required to deliver them, extends to the end of this decade and beyond.

“Quantum computing is really fascinating because, in the future, we’ll be able to perform cryptographic algorithms or different kinds of functions that can’t be performed as quickly by our classical systems today,” IBM’s Anne Dames said during a recent TechChannel webinar, “IBM Z: The Innovation Continues.”

Dames, a Distinguished Engineer with the IBM Z team, works on firmware development, particularly in the area of cryptographic technology. She explained how quantum’s design interacts with the security infrastructure of current IT environments.

The Future of Quantum Computing

“As it turns out, the particular math problems that a quantum computer might be able to solve are the exact problems that we derive the strength of some of our current security from,” Dames said. “Quantum computing will unlock significant innovation, but an adversary might use a quantum computer to break cryptographic protections that we’ve been using for many years. So, this is where we have to be a little cautious.”

Andrew Regenscheid, a security specialist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), was another participant at the TechChannel webinar. He’s part of a NIST group that is going through the multi-year process of developing cryptographic standards and guidelines for the U.S. government agency and serve as a framework for the IT world at large.

Noting that NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence collaborates with IBM and other entities to accelerate the adoption of quantum-resistant cryptography, Regenscheid explained the urgency in migrating computing systems worldwide. “We’ve been through cryptographic migrations from one algorithm to another, but really nothing at the scale that we’re facing with this transition to quantum resistant cryptography. We need to do a lot of work to get those algorithms into the systems and applications that we use and into use in the environments that we have. It’s going to be a tremendous undertaking.”

While techies who lived and worked through the Y2K transition at the end of the 20th century will undoubtedly find these cautionary messages familiar, significant differences exist between then and now. For one, there’s no precise deadline. Although the Cloud Security Alliance operates a countdown clock that’s set to expire on April 14, 2030, that date is just an estimate based on the expectation of many experts that quantum computers will be capable of breaking public key cryptography in the next few years.

“The U.S. government at least has established 2035 as our planned deadline for transitioning most of our systems to quantum resistant cryptography. That might sound like a long time from now, but these transitions are very complicated to do, so that’s actually very much an aggressive pipeline. There is really a need to prepare,” Regenscheid said.

3 Steps to Prepare for Quantum Advancements

As a first step, Regenscheid recommends that organizations carefully track their use of cryptography to identify the systems that need to be updated, either as part of a standard modernization process or migrated to quantum resistant cryptography through a separate effort. Data is another critical consideration in light of the “harvest now, decrypt later” approach taken by hackers. It’s incumbent upon organizations to determine how long their data needs to be protected.

Dames added that educating key organizational stakeholders outside of IT about the quantum threat is also essential. “It’s important they understand what the quantum threat is about, how it impacts them and why’s important to start now planning for the replacement of hardware, software and services that leverage the effective topography.”

The TechChannel webinar, hosted in partnership with IBM, covers many aspects of innovation and development on the z16 mainframe. Watch it here.