2022 Billington Cybersecurity Summit: Take-Aways from an Important Discussion about the Future of Encryption

October 13, 2022

By Duncan Jones

In September, nearly 200 senior cybersecurity leaders from around the world convened to discuss the state of U.S. cybersecurity at the 2022 Billington Cybersecurity Summit. Topics around cybersecurity were varied and included discussions about moral asymmetry of today’s global threat actors, lessons learned from Ukraine and general discussions around all things that “keep us up at night” concerning cyber threats.

As a speaker at the Summit, I wanted to take a moment to share my take-aways from an important discussion that took place during our breakout session, “Future of Encryption: Moving to a Quantum Resistant World.” My esteemed fellow panelists from NSA, NIST, CMU and AWS exchanged insights as to where U.S. government agencies stand in their preparation for current and future threats to encryption, the likely hurdles they face, and the resources that exist to assist in the transition. Those responsible for moving their agency to a quantum-resistant world should find the following insights worth considering.

Getting Out of The Starting Gate

With the prospect of powerful quantum computers breaking known encryption methods on the horizon and with federal mandate NSM-10 now in place, the good news is that quantum-proof encryption is finally being discussed. The not-so-good-news is that it isn’t clear to cybersecurity practitioners what they need to do first. Understanding the threat is not nearly as difficult as understanding the timing, which seems to have left agency personnel at the starting gate of a planning process fraught with challenges – and urgency.

Why is the timeline so difficult to establish? Because there is no way of knowing when a quantum-based attack will take place. The Quantum-safe Security Working Group of the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) chose the date, April 14, 2030, to represent “Y2Q,” also known as “Q-Day” – the moment secure IT infrastructure becomes vulnerable to the threat of a fault-tolerant quantum computer running Shor’s algorithm. The Biden Administration based its implementation timeline on the day that NIST announced the four winning algorithms for standardization. Then there is the “hack now, decrypt later” timeline which suggests that quantum-related attacks may already be underway.

Regardless of the final timeline or potential drivers, one thing that was clear to the panel attendees was that they need to start the transition now.

The Need to ‘Future-Proof’

I get this question often and was not disappointed when one attendee asked, “How can I convince my agency leadership that migrating to quantum-proof encryption is a priority when they are still trying to tackle basic cyber threats?”

The panelists responded and agreed that the U.S. government’s data storage requirements are unique in that classification dates are typically 20 years. This means that systems in development today, that are typically fielded over the next 10 years, will actually have a storage shelf life of 30 years minimum. Those systems need to be “future-proofed” today, a term that should be effective when trying to convince agency leaders of the priority.  

The need to future-proof is driven by a variety of scenarios, such as equipment and software upgrades. In general, it takes a long time (and perhaps even longer for government entities) to upgrade or change equipment, software, etc. It will take an extremely long time to update all of the software that has cryptography in place.

The panelists also agreed that given the extensive supply chain supporting federal systems, vendors are a critical component to the overall success of an agency’s future-proofing for the quantum age. In 10—15 years, there will be some government partner/vendor somewhere who will not have transitioned to quantum-proof encryption. For leaders who have not yet prioritized their agency’s cryptography migration, let them ponder that thought -- and start to focus on the need to prepare.

Déjà Vu or Lessons Learned?

The panel shared several past technology migrations that were similar in their minds to the adoption of quantum computing.

Y2K was similar to the looming quantum threat by both the urgency and scale of the government’s need to migrate systems. However, without a deadline assigned to implementing the encryption migration, Y2K is really only similar in scale.

The panelists also recalled when every company had to replace the SHA-1 hash function, but concluded that the amount of time, effort, and energy required to replace current encryption will be way more important than SHA-1 -- and way more ubiquitous.

While previous technology migrations help to establish lessons learned for the government’s quantum-proof cryptography migration, the panel concluded that this go-round will have a very unique set of challenges -- the likes of which organizations have never had to tackle before.

Where to Start

The consensus among panelists was that agencies need to first understand what data they have today and how vulnerable it is to attack. Data that is particularly sensitive, and vulnerable to the “hack-now, decrypt-later” attacks, should be prioritized above less sensitive data. For some organizations, this is a very challenging endeavor that they’ve never embarked upon before. Now is an opportune time to build inventory data and keep it up to date. From a planning and migration perspective, this is an agency’s chance to do it once and do it well.

It is important to assume from the start that the vast majority of organizations will need to migrate multiple times. Panelists emphasized the need for “crypto agility” that will enable future replacement of algorithms to be made easily. Crypto agility is about how easy it is to transition from one algorithm (or choice of parameters) to another. Organizations that prioritize long-term thinking should already be looking at this.

The panelists added that communicating with vendors early on in the planning process is vital.  As one panelist explained, “A lot of our service providers, vendors, etc. will be flipping switches for us, but a lot won’t. Understanding what your priorities are for flipping the switch and communicating it to your vendors is important.”

Help Is on Its Way

Matt Scholl of NIST shared about the work that NCCOE is doing to provide guidance, tips, and to answer questions such as what are discovery tools and how do I budget? The Migration to Post-Quantum Cryptography project, announced in July 2022, is working to develop white papers, playbooks, demonstrations, tools that can help other organizations implement their conversions to post-quantum cryptography. Other resources that offer good guidance, according to Scholl, include recent CISA Guidance, DHS’ roadmap and the Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity.

One additional resource that has been extremely helpful for our CISO customers is Quantinuum’s The CISO’s Guide to Post-Quantum Standardization. The guide outlines what CISOs from any organization should be doing now and provides a basic transition roadmap to follow.

Conclusion

The discussion wrapped up with the acknowledgement that quantum has finally become part of the mainstream cybersecurity discussion and that the future benefit of quantum computing far outweighs the challenges of transitioning to new cryptography. As a parting thought, I emphasized the wonderful opportunity that agencies have to rethink how they do things and encouraged attendees to secure management commitment and funding for this much-needed modernization.

I want to give a special thanks to my fellow panelists for the engaging discussion: Margaret Salter, Director, Applied Cryptography, AWS, Dr. Mark Sherman, Director, Cybersecurity Foundations, CMU, Matthew Scholl, Chief of the Computer Security Division, ITL, NIST, and Dr. Adrian Stanger, Cybersecurity Directorate Senior Cryptographic Authority NSA.