NIST asks for Help against Quantum Computers

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

December 29, 2016

Make no mistake about it, the future of computing is quantum. And this is a problem that deeply concerns the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

What is NIST?

NIST is a measurement standards laboratory, and a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce. Its mission is to promote innovation and industrial competitiveness.”

Crucially, NIST certifies and helps to develop encryption standards. And because compliance with NIST standards is a prerequisite to obtaining US government contracts, these encryption standards are often widely adopted by technology firms around the world. And are incorporated into their security products

AES, RSA, SHA-1 and SHA-2, for example, were all developed and/or certified by the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

NIST also works very closely with the NSA, and is widely regarded as being complicit in weakening key encryption standards at its behest.

What are quantum computers?

Quantum computers… make direct use of quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to perform operations on data… Large-scale quantum computers will be able to solve certain problems much more quickly than any classical computers that use even the best currently known algorithms… There exist quantum algorithms, such as Simon’s algorithm, that run faster than any possible probabilistic classical algorithm.”

What this means is that computers in the not distant future will be able to perform calculations and solve mathematical problems much faster than any conventional computer around today.

Of course, no-one has yet developed a quantum computer capable of this, but the NSA is throwing vast resources at developing as “a cryptologically useful quantum computer.” And even commercial projects are beginning to show promising results.

The problem with quantum computers

To cryptographers, quantum computers present a major headache. Strong modern cryptographic algorithms are regarded as being secure against conventional computer-based decryption methods for tens, if not hundreds, of years.

In fact, I have calculated that it would take one of the fastest supercomputers currently in existence around 1 billion years to crack a 128-bit AES key by brute force.

A quantum computer, however, could (at least in theory) make mincemeat of all current encryption schemes. According to Michele Mosca, co-founder of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing,

The cryptography tools that are the foundation of cybersecurity are all threatened by quantum computation. Once we fully harness the quantum world it could complete shatter the currently deployed public key cryptography… and it can sufficiently compromise symmetric key ciphering. That’s the catastrophe looming.”

So it is no wonder that NIST is worried,

If large-scale quantum computers are ever built, they will be able to break many of the public-key cryptosystems currently in use.

Someone with access to a quantum computer could easily access every online bank account in the world, could decrypt the vast amounts of highly sensitive and classified information held by every government in the world (including the US government, of course), and much more.


NIST has now issued a public call for help in tackling this problem,

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is officially asking the public for help heading off a looming threat to information security: quantum computers, which could potentially break the encryption codes used to protect privacy in digital systems. NIST is requesting methods and strategies from the world’s cryptographers, with the deadline less than a year away.

The Call for Proposals for Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization (link is external), announced today in the Federal Register, is NIST’s first formal step toward countering the danger that quantum computers pose to the security of digital information. Though practical quantum computers have yet to be built, their design—which would draw upon very different scientific concepts than conventional computers—would enable them to break some of the cryptographic algorithms commonly used to protect electronic messages.

Private sector and academic cryptographers are invited to send proposed algorithms to NIST by November 30, 2017. An evaluation phase will follow, which will take an estimated three to five years. NIST mathematician Dusty Moody explains that,

We will be doing our own internal review of the algorithms, and we certainly want the public and crypto community to analyze the algorithms as well… Post-quantum algorithms haven’t received nearly the same amount of scrutiny and cryptanalysis as those we currently use on today’s conventional computers. We need that to change.

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

2 responses to “NIST asks for Help against Quantum Computers

  1. I hope that no one will help them !
    A quantum computer is based on the theory that in the same time , you could know all the place where an object in movement should be in the same space : -it is a biased-false mathematical idea- so you could know immediately all the result which the right.
    You could predict the future so the right key (all the place = all the keys). But the quantum is not real and not proven (except by dreamers,writers,scientist who need a support and their wonderful/comfortable privileged job) , it is a virtual space where all exist without really exist. Here the mystery of the black mass explained : just a pretext to earn money easily with the work of the other (the research need a lot resources which your money – it is taken on your budget,for your life given by your government,coming from your taxes).
    If they want help they MUST pay the value of every idea & work !!!
    NIST (corrupted) betrayed the chain of trust : do not trust them.

    1. Hi boyboy,

      Quantum computers are real, and practical versions of them will be av available “soon”. I agree, however, that NIST has proven itself untrustworthy, and that it should pay creators properly for any intellectual ideas it uses.

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