Microsoft's Executive Vice President of Security, Charlie Bell, is leading an initiative to build a so-called “quantum-safe future”. As technology advances rapidly, security concerns have become increasingly prominent, and Bell recognizes the need to address potential threats posed by quantum computing.
Quantum Computing: A Double-Edged Sword
Quantum computing, while holding the potential to solve many of the world's most complex and pressing problems, also presents significant security challenges. “This transformational computing power capable of driving so much societal good could also be used by bad actors looking to cause disruption and harm”, Bell wrote in an official blog post. He emphasized the need for advanced security capabilities to ensure that the benefits of quantum computing can be reaped without succumbing to these threats.
The Quantum Threat to Encryption
One of the primary concerns in a quantum computing era is the impact on encryption systems. Current security measures heavily rely on public-key cryptography, which could be vulnerable to quantum computers. “The strength of current cryptographic systems lies in the complexity of certain mathematical problems, one of which involves finding the factor of extraordinarily large numbers — a task that would take traditional computers millions of years to solve”, Bell explained. However, with the emergence of quantum computers, these large-number factors could potentially be unraveled in mere minutes, rendering RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) and similar asymmetric algorithms vulnerable.
Preparing for a “Quantum-Safe” Future
To address this potential disruption, Microsoft is investing in research and development to create quantum-safe approaches. The company recognizes the need for algorithm agility, resiliency, and flexibility to ensure the security of cryptographic systems in the face of quantum computing. “As we progress, algorithm agility, resiliency and flexibility will be needed to easily switch or combine cryptographic approaches — a process that will require significant financial investment, changes in existing infrastructure, and timely planning, execution and coordination across supply chains and ecosystems”, Bell writes.
Quantum Machine: A Cloud Service on Azure?
Microsoft plans to deliver its quantum machine as a cloud service through Azure, implementing technical and operational controls to prevent misuse. However, Bell stressed the importance of considering the broader quantum landscape, as not all quantum machines will be protected in the same way. Immediate risks, such as the vulnerability of un-updatable IoT devices and potential “Harvest Now, Decrypt Later” scenarios, demand attention and preparation.
Bell draws a parallel to the Y2K challenge, highlighting the need for a massive industry-wide effort to overcome the potential vulnerabilities posed by quantum computers. “The time to prepare is now — and Microsoft is here to help”, Bell assured. He encouraged organizations to create inventories of critical data and cryptography technologies, assess their vulnerabilities, and develop transition strategies. Microsoft is already assisting customers and partners in risk-sensitive industries, providing resources and support on their journey to becoming quantum-safe.
As quantum technology continues to advance, Microsoft remains dedicated to the security of its products and customers. Through collaboration and proactive measures, the company aims to embrace the quantum future while ensuring a safe and secure digital ecosystem.
Microsoft's Quantum Research and Competitors
Microsoft is one of the leaders in quantum computing development, achieving some significant breakthroughs in the push beyond supercomputers. However, there are many other research projects outside of Microsoft in the same field. In 2020 Chinese researchers claimed having achieved a breakthrough by reaching quantum supremacy. This essentially means evidence quantum computing will outperform supercomputers.
A team from the University of Science and Technology of China confirmed in Science they developed a system called Jiuzhang that can complete a calculation in minutes that a supercomputer would take 10,000 years to solve. It's the groups quantum supremacy achievement, following Google‘s own self proclaimed supremacy breakthrough in 2019.