December 6, 2021 | Policy Brief

Washington Seeks to Counter China’s Quantum Computing Drive

December 6, 2021 | Policy Brief

Washington Seeks to Counter China’s Quantum Computing Drive

The U.S. Department of Commerce last month sanctioned eight Chinese companies for supporting the efforts of the People’s Republic of China to develop quantum computing technology for military applications. While the computer and security industry initially regarded quantum technology, which conducts calculations at an exponentially faster speed than traditional computers, as a threat 10 to 15 years in the future, the U.S. government’s actions reflect a recognition that the timeline is shrinking.

The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security added the eight Chinese firms to its Entity List, thereby barring them from importing U.S.-origin technologies and equipment that would advance the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities and threaten the United States. The department noted that China is exploring quantum-enabled “counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications.”

While quantum computing has many peaceful applications, it could also give China a decisive edge in cryptography. An October 2021 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center warns that development of quantum capabilities by U.S. adversaries puts “at risk the infrastructure protecting today’s economic and national security communications. In short, whoever wins the race for quantum computing supremacy could potentially compromise the communications of others.” Technology research company Gartner likewise identifies quantum computing as an emerging technology that will provide a competitive advantage over the next 10 years.

The People’s Republic of China is preparing for the day it has robust quantum computing capabilities. Last month, a report by Booz Allen Hamilton warned that Chinese cyber threat groups likely now seek to gather “encrypted data with long-term utility,” with the expectation they can decrypt it within the decade. This type of data includes biometric markers, social security numbers, weapon designs, and the identities of covert intelligence officers and sources.

Quantum computing will undermine the effectiveness of current encryption methods, which secure daily digital communications, including credit card payments, military operational information, and other government secrets. Today’s encryption is unbreakable because it uses algorithms — essentially mathematical equations — that require too much computing power to decipher. Yet because quantum computers are exponentially faster, they dramatically reduce the time required to perform calculations needed to break present-day encryption.

Theoretically, it is possible to create unconditional security, resistant to both quantum and classical computers, while maintaining compatibility with existing communications protocols and networks. Deploying what is called “post-quantum” cryptography, users can encrypt data in a way that quantum computers cannot break. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is developing cryptography standards, slated for release in 2024, that users can implement to prepare for employing post-quantum cryptography. However, without additional education about the reality of the threat, it may take years for businesses and the public to understand and adopt these standards and transition to new technologies.

The Biden administration’s recent sanctions will hamper China’s ability to acquire U.S. technologies to aid its quantum computing research and development. However, this will not be enough. The U.S. government must encourage allies and partners to take similar steps and do more to establish quantum-resistant algorithms sooner rather than later. Encrypted data collected now may not remain secret for long and will be vulnerable to decryption by quantum computers in the not-too-distant future.

In October, public revelations about China’s surprise test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile underscored that Washington underestimates China’s timeline for technical developments at America’s peril. Instead of assuming that quantum computing remains a distant threat, Washington must work with industry to begin developing standards, educating the private sector, and exploring regulations to shift toward quantum-secure encryption today.

Dr. Georgianna Shea is the chief technologist of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s China Program. Cara Cancelmo is a CCTI intern. For more analysis from the authors, CCTI, and the China Program, please subscribe, HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Cyber