A basic laptop hacked a top encryption algorithm in an hour, and there’s no backup plan

The news: A promising algorithm designed to guard against future, more sophisticated cyberattacks was hacked in an hour by a single-core PC.

  • The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) selected four encryption algorithms as candidates for protecting against the code-breaking power of future quantum computers, but one of the finalists was unable to withstand existing hacking capabilities, per Ars Technica.
  • The algorithms are part of the NIST’s post-quantum cryptography (PQC) plan to replace current encryption standards with more advanced ones by 2024 to protect against quantum breaches, per Forbes.
  • The plan involves a massive technology overhaul that the World Economic Forum expects will require over 20 billion digital devices be upgraded or replaced in a costly global migration that could span a decade.

How we got here: The worsening cybersecurity landscape, marked by a continuous increase of sophisticated attacks, is on track to reach a crescendo as quantum computing advances.

  • In 1995, a researcher created Shor’s algorithm, which is capable of defeating current computer security standards.
  • The algorithm’s limitation is that it can only run on a quantum computer that’s more advanced than the ones available today, though that notion could already be outdated.
  • In the interim, hackers are in a “harvest now, decrypt later” mode.
  • The quantum hacking scheme involves bad actors—governments and individuals—harvesting encrypted data to keep until they get a quantum computer powerful enough to access the sensitive data, in an event dubbed Y2Q.
  • As the quantum field advances, the federal government is trying to fend off the looming global security catastrophe.

The problem: A Zapata Computing team demonstrated that a class of more efficient, less precise algorithms, known as heuristic algorithms, can break current advanced encryption systems using simpler quantum computers. And the NIST is reportedly ignoring the issue.

The NIST’s planned sweeping upgrade might not work, leaving businesses and taxpayers holding the bill while all our sensitive data is exposed.

  • More frequent and sophisticated cyberattacks are already targeting businesses of all sizes, individuals, healthcare institutions, and government agencies.
  • The growing problem can erode consumer confidence, with data privacy compromised while people shop, bank, and interact online.

What can be done? A broader coalition of academics, private sector experts, and government security officials could pool their knowledge to devise more foolproof solutions.

  • Companies can diversify their security systems and make them more flexible for updating as existing encryption standards become obsolete.
  • The NIST could incentivize developers to tackle the heuristic algorithm security gap and other blind spots.
  • A global security overhaul of billions of digital devices likely requires a cybersecurity talent base that doesn’t exist. More investment could be made to build an army of highly trained cybersecurity professionals.

Dive deeper: Learn more about the vulnerable digital business world in our The Cybersecurity Risk report.

This article originally appeared in Insider Intelligence's Connectivity & Tech Briefing—a daily recap of top stories reshaping the technology industry. Subscribe to have more hard-hitting takeaways delivered to your inbox daily.

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