“We have done some work with the NCSC but they just do not have the budget to fund this kind of development,” he says.
His fear is that the UK could experience a brain drain of cryptography talent to other countries like Canada and France that have allocated more government funding to the field.
In January, the French government announced €150m (£130m) in funding for quantum safe encryption as part of a larger €1.8bn grant for quantum computing.
Insiders with links to the security services say that the Government is carrying out its own secret work on quantum safe encryption instead of relying on start-ups.
Dr Ian Levy, the technical director of the NCSC, says the organisation “continues to work closely with industry, academia and international partners” on the subject. “The NCSC is committed to ensuring the UK is well-prepared for quantum-safe cryptography,” he adds.
The threat of quantum computing breaking encryption could be solved within months, however. Many organisations, including PQ Shield and Post-Quantum have been taking part in a global competition run by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The contest, announced in 2016, is nearing completion. Early next year, NIST will announce the new standard for quantum safe encryption, essentially replacing RSA. “It will change the world not for the next decade, but for the next 40 or 50 years,” Cheng says.
If everything goes smoothly, in several years the encryption keeping secrets safe will be quietly swapped out so that quantum computers cannot easily crack messages.
“I think the answer to the threat should be transparent for users. They should have basically the same experience they have today. They shouldn’t have to install some new bit of kit,” says Alan Woodward, a computer security expert and visiting professor at the University of Surrey.
But while NIST’s competition is nearing its end, there’s a rival scheme that has already been launched around the world.
Telecom businesses such as BT have spent millions of pounds creating specialist networks that use a system called quantum key distribution. It uses a stream of single photos to transfer the secret encryption keys used to decrypt data securely.
Instead of a new encryption algorithm, this scheme relies on kilometres of fibre optic cables to transfer keys and has been the favoured choice of physicists who prefer its reliance on photons rather than mathematics.
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