Quantum-safe cryptography with IBM's Michael Osborne

"If we as an organisation develop quantum technology, then we also have a responsibility to create the safeguards against misuse of that technology"
How do you protect data from risks that don't yet exist? Michael Osborne, CTO IBM Quantum Safe, speaks to us about the future of quantum-safe cryptography

IBM continues to disrupt the AI and quantum space with new technologies that hope to realise their full potential. With quantum, the goal is to better understand these systems so that data can be protected decades into the future.

With this in mind, we spoke with Michael Osborne, CTO for IBM Quantum Safe at IBM Research Zurich, about how IBM is working to harness quantum safe cryptography to protect the data of the future.

Osbourne began his career in communication systems with IBM, before moving to security, where he looked at cryptography, which was a large area at the laboratory. He then worked in areas like smart cards and cryptographic libraries, before moving to the new and cutting-edge research into foundational cryptography.

“I moved on to the foundational side, which was more about creating cryptography,” he says. “The knowledge and projects that I was able to do at IBM (such as the UK driver’s licence) were such nice projects that you can only do with large organisations such as IBM.”

He adds: “As a researcher it's very rich to be able to work on such projects and then transfer that knowledge into technology which can feed further projects.”

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In simple terms, what is quantum safe cryptography and how can it protect our data moving forward?

“Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there wasn't an internet per se. There was no ecommerce because it was very difficult to talk to somebody else and trust what they were doing. And this is what the cryptography breakthroughs at the time allowed. They allowed secure communications to somebody else to be established, creating an equivalent to writing a contract.

“This is what the digital economy has grown up on. It's really foundational deep down, with algorithms based on mathematics, which up until quantum computers were conceived, were thought to be very secure. Nobody found a way to break them because of the mathematics used.

“Unfortunately, quantum computers are very good at that sort of mathematics so we have to find similar algorithms for signing things and for establishing trust based on mathematics, which a quantum computer isn't good at.

“The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) went through large competition to try and find a new form of mathematics that had the right sort of security properties and the right sort of performance to be the new cryptography that we use. And that's what this quantum safe or post quantum cryptography is. It does the same things as the old cryptography, just using different mathematics underneath.”

Why is IBM keen to develop quantum cryptography? Why is it important?

“One reason is the ethical dimension. If we as an organisation develop quantum technology, then we also have a responsibility to create the safeguards against misuse of that technology. We [already] do this with AI, so for quantum it's no different.

“Another reason is the impact of quantum computers. Their capability is just so great, that it really will break all the foundations of what we use now for the digital economy. So it's really a catastrophic threat that's coming - we have to be prepared [and] have solutions. The digital economy essentially is where IBM earns its money and where we have clients that we want to protect.”

What kind of future risks are there and how is IBM hoping to mitigate these?

“This is also the great thing about working for IBM is that we do exciting research in other technologies. Quantum, for example, as well as neuromorphic computers - computers which act like a brain - these are new technologies and there is a whole pipeline of crazy cool things being looked at and developed. Some of those will eventually become very interesting technologies that also need safeguards.

“The thing about research is that 90% of what you do will not make it through to something which has a very large impact. So you have to keep an eye out for the 10%.”

Is there something in particular that you are excited about for 2024?

“The immediate things are AI related things. AI is incredibly dynamic right now in terms of its capabilities that what it essentially does is make difficult things easy for attackers who previously wouldn't have been able to cause threats. AI is a huge near term threat - everything in the good world, which is not very secure, becomes even more of a threat because it’s easy to do all sorts of things.

“The only way you can really look at solving that problem is just raising your whole game when it comes to cybersecurity. This is one of the things that the quantum threat actually helps with. It can be a catalyst to improve cybersecurity posture.

“So one example is governance. People don't know where things are in their organisation, but how things are put together. With things like the software, materials and the software supply chain, it is so important. The most important part of 2024 is to understand what you have and what you're building. It’s only with that understanding that you're able to start automating the defences that you need in the same way that attackers are able to automate attacks.

“You have to figure out what the right defensive technology is. For AI, it's AI. You have to combat AI with AI.

“The positive thread that I have is that, with the right awareness, you can drag a whole lot of other things to a good place because it’s the easiest way to actually get to where you need to be. There's no point being quantum safe if everything else is unsafe.

“Everybody is interested in quantum because it's also a business threat. If you're not in the game, you might go out of business. It has a certain ‘click appeal’ that is useful for putting people into a better cybersecurity posture. It is encouraging, people want to know about it. It gets attention.”


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