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Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The NIST Process for Post-Quantum Cryptography

Guest post by Jonathan Katz

Over the past few months there have been several interesting developments in the NIST post-quantum standardization process.

By way of background, since the advent of Shor's algorithm in 1994 we have known that a large-scale, general-purpose quantum computer would be able to break all currently deployed public-key cryptography in (quantum) polynomial time. While estimates vary as to when (or even whether!) quantum computers will become a realistic threat to existing public-key cryptosystems, it seems prudent to already begin developing/deploying newer "post-quantum" schemes that are plausibly secure against quantum computers.

With the above in mind, NIST initiated an open process in 2017 for designing post-quantum cryptographic standards. Researchers from around the world submitted candidate algorithms for public-key encryption/key exchange and digital signatures. These were winnowed down over a series of rounds as cryptographers publicly debated the relative merits of different proposals, or showed security weaknesses in some candidates.

On July 5 of this year, NIST announced that it had selected four of the submissions as finalists for standardization. Only one candidate for public-key encryption was chosen, along with three digital signature schemes. Three of the four selected algorithms rely on the hardness of lattice problems; the only non-lattice scheme is a hash-based signature scheme. (It is possible to build digital signatures using "symmetric-key" assumptions alone.) In addition, four other public-key encryption schemes not based on lattices were designated for further study and possible standardization at a later point in time.

Less than one month later, Castryck and Decru announced a classical attack on SIKE, one of the public-key encryption schemes chosen for further study. SIKE is based on a conjectured hard problem related to isogenies on supersingular elliptic curves. The attack was not just theoretical; the researchers were able to implement the attack and run it in less than a day or less, depending on the security level being considered. Details of the attack are quite complex, but Galbraith gives a high-level overview. Subsequent improvements to the attack followed.

It is worth adding that the above follows an entirely classical attack shown roughly six months earlier on Rainbow, another submission to the NIST standardization process that made it to the 3rd round. (Rainbow is a signature scheme that relies on an entirely different mathematical problem than SIKE.) For completeness, note that none of the four finalists are impacted by any of these attacks.

A few reflections on the above:
  • It is amazing that the factoring and RSA problems are still hard (for classical computers), more than 40 used after they were proposed for cryptography. The same goes for the discrete-logarithm problem (in certain groups).
  • It is not easy to find other hard mathematical problems! Code-based cryptography has been around about as long as factoring, but has been somewhat unpopular for reasons of efficiency. Lattice-based cryptosystems still seem to give the leading candidates.
  • We need more (non-cryptographers) studying cryptographic assumptions. The attacks on SIKE involved deep mathematics; attacks on lattice problems may involve algorithmic ideas that cryptographers haven't thought of.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I was wondering what the breathless frantic headlines about a new encryption algorithm being broken on a laptop were about, and given that it wasn't one of the four chosen as final candidates, the answer is: I was right not to click the clickbait.

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