White House wants nation to prepare for cryptography-breaking quantum computers
President Joe Biden speaks March 16, 2022, in the East Room of the White House. Image: White House / Erin Scott
Joe Warminsky May 4, 2022

White House wants nation to prepare for cryptography-breaking quantum computers

White House wants nation to prepare for cryptography-breaking quantum computers

A memorandum issued Wednesday by President Joe Biden orders federal agencies to ramp up preparations for a day when quantum computers are capable of breaking the public-key cryptography currently used to secure digital systems around the world.

The document, National Security Memorandum 10 (NSM-10), calls for “a whole-of-government and whole‑of‑society strategy” for quantum information science (QIS), including “the security enhancements provided by quantum-resistant cryptography.”

The chief concern is the expected creation of a cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC) — the presumed goal of some QIS research by the U.S. as well as adversaries such as China.

“Current research shows that at some point in the not-too-distant future, when quantum information science matures and quantum computers are able reach a sufficient size and level of sophistication, they will be capable of breaking much of the cryptography that currently secures our digital communications,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters Tuesday in advance of the memorandum’s release. That cryptography, in many cases, dates to work published in the late 1970s and updated in the decades since.

“The good news is that this is not an insurmountable problem,” the official said. “The National Institute of Standards and Technology — NIST — will soon be publishing new cryptographic standards that can protect against these future attacks.”

Biden’s memorandum mentions quantum-resistant cryptography more than 20 times as it lays out tasks for agencies such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the National Security Agency and NIST, which has an authoritative role in setting cybersecurity standards.

Those agencies will have about six months to “establish requirements for inventorying all currently deployed cryptographic systems, excluding National Security Systems (NSS).”

NIST and CISA also would be required to set up outreach with the private sector, including critical infrastructure operators, on transitioning important systems to quantum-resistant cryptography.

Biden also issued an executive order Wednesday that would create a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee including White House officials and up to 26 experts from industry, academia and U.S. national laboratories. The order builds on the National Quantum Initiative Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018.

Joe Warminsky is the news editor for The Record. He has more than 25 years experience as an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Most recently he helped lead CyberScoop for more than five years. Prior to that, he was a digital editor at WAMU 88.5, the NPR affiliate in Washington, and he spent more than a decade editing coverage of Congress for CQ Roll Call.