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In recent years, there has been a substantial amount of research on quantum computers – machines that exploit quantum mechanical phenomena to solve mathematical problems that are difficult or intractable for conventional computers. If large-scale quantum computers are ever built, they will compromise the security of many commonly used cryptographic algorithms.
In particular, quantum computers would completely break many public-key cryptosystems, including RSA, DSA, and elliptic curve cryptosystems. These cryptosystems are used to implement digital signatures and key establishment and play a crucial role in ensuring the confidentiality and authenticity of communications on the Internet and other networks.
Due to this concern, many researchers have begun to investigate post-quantum cryptography (PQC) (also called quantum-resistant or quantum-safe cryptography). The goal of this research is to develop cryptographic algorithms that would be secure against both quantum and classical computers. These algorithms could serve as replacements for our current public-key cryptosystems to prepare for the eventuality that large-scale quantum computers become a reality.
At present, there are several post-quantum cryptosystems that have been proposed, including lattice-based cryptosystems, code-based cryptosystems, multivariate cryptosystems, hash-based signatures, and others. However, for most of these proposals, further research is needed in order to gain more confidence in their security (particularly against adversaries with quantum computers) and to improve their performance.
NIST has decided that it is prudent to begin developing standards for post-quantum cryptography now. This is driven by two factors. First, there has been noticeable progress in the development of quantum computers, including theoretical techniques for quantum error correction and fault-tolerant quantum computation, and experimental demonstrations of physical qubits and entangling operations in architectures that have the potential to scale up to larger systems.
Second, it appears that a transition to post-quantum cryptography will not be simple as there is unlikely to be a simple “drop-in” replacement for our current public-key cryptographic algorithms. A significant effort will be required in order to develop, standardize, and deploy new post-quantum cryptosystems. In addition, this transition needs to take place well before any large-scale quantum computers are built, so that any information that is later compromised by quantum cryptanalysis is no longer sensitive when that compromise occurs. Therefore, it is desirable to plan for this transition early.
NIST is beginning a process to develop new cryptography standards. These new standards will be used as quantum resistant counterparts to existing standards, including digital signature schemes specified in Federal Information Processing Standards Publication (FIPS) 186 and key establishment schemes specified in NIST Special Publications (SP) 800-56 A and B. The process is referred to as post-quantum cryptography standardization. The standards will be published as Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPSs) or Special Publications (SPs).
NIST is soliciting proposals for post-quantum cryptosystems and it will solicit comments from the public as part of its evaluation process. NIST expects to perform multiple rounds of evaluation, over a period of three to five years. The goal of this process is to select a number of acceptable candidate cryptosystems for standardization.
NIST anticipates that the evaluation process for these post-quantum cryptosystems may be significantly more complex than the evaluation of the SHA-3 and AES candidates. One reason is that the requirements for public-key encryption and digital signatures are more complicated. Another reason is that the current scientific understanding of the power of quantum computers is far from comprehensive. Finally, some of the candidate post-quantum cryptosystems may have completely different design attributes and mathematical foundations, so that a direct comparison of candidates would be difficult or impossible.
As a result of these complexities, NIST believes that its post-quantum standards development process should not be treated as a competition; in some cases, it may not be possible to make a well-supported judgment that one candidate is “better” than another. Rather, NIST will perform a thorough analysis of the submitted algorithms in a manner that is open and transparent to the public, as well as encourage the cryptographic community to also conduct analyses and evaluation. This combined analysis will inform NIST’s decision on the subsequent development of post-quantum standards.
NIST recognizes that some users may wish to deploy systems that use “hybrid modes,” which combine post-quantum cryptographic algorithms with existing cryptographic algorithms (which may not be post-quantum). These “hybrid modes” are outside of the scope of this document, which is focused on post-quantum cryptographic algorithms only.