The US, through two presidential directives on Wednesday, announced a new policy framework to maintain its “competitive advantage in quantum information sciences (QIS)”, and mitigate “the risks of quantum computers to the nation’s cyber, economic and national security” by initiating the process of migrating vulnerable computer systems to quantum-resistant cryptography. It also laid out a new structure for the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, placing it directly under the White House to advise the president on the emerging technology.
Placing the policy in a larger context, a senior administration official told reporters that the Joe Biden administration has “integrated cybersecurity and emerging technology into our national security strategy in a truly unprecedented way”.
“Our public approach can be summarised by three mutually reinforcing lines of effort. First, modernising our cyber defences. Second, returning a more active role leading internationally. And third, ensuring America is postured to compete. The two presidential directives on quantum tech are part of that third line of effort. They underscore the president’s commitment to fostering innovation in cutting edge science and technology while continuing to take the necessary steps to safeguard the economy and infrastructure of the future,” the official said.
In keeping with this dual approach, the presidential directive on maintaining US leadership in quantum computing highlights the role of quantum computing in driving innovation, in fields as diverse as material sciences to pharma, finance to energy. At the same time, Biden’s directive notes that a quantum computer of “sufficient size and sophistication”, known as cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC), will be capable of breaking much of the “public-key cryptography used on digital systems” in the US and across the world. “When it becomes available, a CRQC could jeopardise civilian and military technologies, undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure, and defeat security protocols for most Internet-based finance technologies”.
To achieve the first goal of innovation, the Biden administration said its policy would focus on maintaining US leadership in the domain “through investments, partnerships and a balanced approach to technological promotion and protection”.
To do so, the directive says, the US must invest in “core QIS research” programmes; foster the next generation of scientists and engineers with quantum-relevant skill sets; incorporate education in QIS at all levels of schooling; establish partnerships with industry, academia, and governments at all levels domestically; “promote professional and academic collaborations with allies and partners overseas”; and devise a national strategy in the domain within 90 days.
To ensure security, the directive pushes for “a timely and equitable transition of the nation’s cryptographic systems to interoperable quantum-resistant cryptography”, with the goal of mitigating as much of the quantum risk as possible by 2035. With the first set of technical standards in the domain expected by 2024, the directive says “cryptographic agility” is central, to both reduce the time needed for the transition and allow for updates.
“This effort is an imperative across all sectors of the US economy, from government to critical infrastructure, commercial services to cloud providers, and everywhere else where vulnerable public-key cryptography is key.”
The directive then lays out a detailed set of instructions to federal agencies, with clear timelines, to commence this process of transition, besides instructing the National Institute for Standards and Technology to set up a Migration to Post-Quantum Cryptography Project at the National Cyber Security Centre of Excellence.
The directive also lays out the goal of “safeguarding relevant quantum R&D (research and development) and intellectual property”, including through counterintelligence measures, export controls, and campaigns to educate industry and academia on threats of cybercrime and intellectual property theft.
In a second directive, the president has also established the National Quantum Advisory Committee to ensure that the national quantum initiative programme is informed by “evidence, data, and perspectives from a diverse group of experts and stakeholders”.
Explaining its significance, the senior administration official quoted above said that the order places the advisory committee directly under the authority of the White House to ensure that the president, Congress, federal agencies and public receive the most current, accurate and relevant information on QIS and tech.