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Technology Futures | 2 February, 2017

QUANTUM COMPUTING AND THE THREAT TO SECURITY

Elizabeth-O'Sullivan---Parkway-6130 Dr Elizabeth O’Sullivan
Lecturer at School of EEECS | Institute of Electronics, Communications & Information Technology
Elizabeth-O'Sullivan---Parkway-6130

At CSIT, Queen’s Centre for Secure Information Technologies, Dr Elizabeth O’Sullivan is taking part in a global campaign to tackle one of the most pressing problems of the modern technological age – post-quantum security.

She explains, ‘Quantum technology, or quantum computing, is being actively pursued in the world of physics. While it offers great potential for technology in general, it poses a huge threat to most of the communication infrastructures we have today.’

She points to the quantum factoring algorithm which was formulated by the mathematician Peter Shor in 1994. ‘It has the potential to break all of our commonly-used public key cryptography. So while the progress towards quantum computing is still in its infancy, the consequences of a scalable quantum system that could render all our communications systems and infrastructures insecure, are too great to ignore.

‘Currently we rely heavily on public key cryptosystems built upon two hard problems that have an underlying theoretical connection. This is not a healthy position to be in and it’s why there is a huge effort internationally to design and develop systems that are secure today but will also be secure against quantum computing.’

GRADUATING FROM QUEEN'S AND INVOLVEMENT WITH CSIT

Elizabeth, a Queen’s graduate with a PhD in theoretical and computational physics, joined CSIT as an engineer in 2011 and became a lecturer in 2014 in the area of secure digital systems, specialising in software security architectures. She had previously worked in industry, in particular with Latens, the large satellite company, which became Pace UK and is now Arris.

She says, ‘That was my introduction to the area of security. I was attracted by the idea of building systems at a large scale, understanding how the infrastructure, the software, the computational aspects interact and how security is built in.’

At CSIT, which is one of the key components of ECIT, the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology, Elizabeth’s focus is on lattice-based cryptography, in which there is substantial interest because of its apparent resistance to attack by both classical and quantum computers.

She is deeply involved in a Horizon 2020 EU-funded project with leading experts in the field. ‘Our partners on the theoretical side are ENS in France and we also have Bochum University in Germany and USI in Switzerland. We’re looking at satellite communications with Thales Research UK, secure data analytics with EMC/RSA and public safety communication with HW Communications.’

There are many international connections. Along with CSIT’s Director of Research, Professor Maire O’Neill, Elizabeth works closely with the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute in South Korea. They have designed embedded security architectures for EV charging systems using Physical Unclonable Functions (PUF), the next generation of anticounterfeiting technology, for LG-CNS.

PARTICIPATING IN INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS ACTIVITIES

Participation in international standards activities in emerging technologies is another important role. The Data Security Systems group at CSIT are members of the Industry Specification Group for Quantum Safe Cryptography (ISG-QSC) within the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Elizabeth and Professor O’Neill have also taken part in a post-quantum security workshop organised by NIST, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, which involved several other universities and international institutions.

‘They’re preparing for transition towards quantum-resilient technology and it was terrific for us to be involved and contribute our evaluation of suitable technology.

‘We really need to start acting now; infrastructures can take many years to fully transition from one type of technology to another. Furthermore, there are already widespread concerns that encrypted information such as government classified data is being harvested in anticipation of a quantum factoring machine, and all our past secrets can be decrypted.

‘We’re involved at the start of something that in five to ten years' time every company will have to think about. Through our experience we hope to be a point of reference, not only for the UK but internationally, so that we can help people make the transition.’

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Find out more about EEECS and the work being doing by our experts in ECIT and by Dr O'Sullivan in CSIT