Encryption & Key Management , Forensics , Next-Generation Technologies & Secure Development

Rep. McCaul: US Must Gain Decryption Edge

Calls for More Federal Funding for Quantum Computing Research
Rep. McCaul: US Must Gain Decryption Edge
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman, Homeland Security Committee

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCall is calling on Congress to increase spending on quantum computing research to ensure that the United States is the first nation to employ quantum computing as a tool to decrypt data. "We can't lose this one to the Chinese," he says.

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Speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce cybersecurity summit Sept. 27, McCaul, R-Texas, noted: "If China develops quantum computing first, it would be a national security disaster. If we want to be first in this area, the federal government has to be driving this."

McCaul compared the quantum computing race to the space race in which the United States landed the first person on the moon. "We want to be first in this; it's really important," he said.

A Long-Term Effort

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has begun work on quantum computing, which could be applied to crack current approaches to cryptography (see Tackling Quantum Computing Threats to Cryptography).

Quantum computers will make use of the quantum states of subatomic particles to process information at speeds exponentially greater than today's devices. Such processing speeds, in theory, could easily break the massively long strings of numbers used in today's encryption software.

Work on refining cryptography so it's effective in the era of quantum computing must start now because "it will take 10 to 20 years to get new algorithms selected, standardized and implemented out into the field," says NIST mathematician Dustin Moody, who co-authored a NIST report on post-quantum cryptography.

Surge in Enthusiasm

While quantum computers are in their infancy, Google has taken a first step toward adapting to the post-quantum cryptography world by launching a two-year experiment that involves incorporating into its Chrome browser a modified version of a key exchange algorithm called Ring Learning with Errors. The algorithm has been implemented for OpenSSL, a general purpose cryptography library that provides an open source implementation of Secure Sockets Layer and Transport Layer Security protocols that are used to secure internet communication (see Google Tests Post-Quantum Crypto).

There's been a recent surge in enthusiasm for tackling the challenge of using quantum computing to decode encrypted data.

"Although people such as me have been talking about the threat to public key cryptography from quantum computers for years, and the alternatives that could be used, it seems that when Google announced that they were experimenting with a post-quantum crypto scheme in Chrome, it caught people's imagination," Alan Woodward, a computer science professor at the University of Surrey, said in a blog post. "Perhaps this marks the beginning of post-quantum crypto entering the mainstream?"

At the Chamber event, McCaul released a revised report from the Homeland Security Committee's majority staff titled "Going Dark, Going Forward: A Primer on the Encryption Debate."

McCaul is co-sponsor of proposed legislation with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. that would establish a National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges. The commission would bring experts together from the public and private sectors to develop policy and legislative recommendations for Congress that would address the challenge of "going dark." That's the term for when criminals and terrorists use encryption to prevent their communications from being revealed to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Rejecting 'Backdoor'

McCaul characterized as a "knee-jerk reaction" efforts to legislate giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies a "backdoor" to bypass encryption, which he says weakens data security and creates vulnerabilities that could be exploited by terrorists and criminals.

The committee report says any legislative solutions will likely come with significant trade-offs and provide little guarantee of successfully addressing the issue. Still, the report says lawmakers need to develop a far deeper understanding of this complex issue before they attempt to support sustainable solutions.

McCaul said the commission bill could be included in omnibus legislation to be considered by Congress after the November presidential election.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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