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Apple’s iMessage can now resist attacks by quantum computers

Given that Apple itself admits that no threat is currently posed by quantum computing, this move might seem like too much too soon, but some believe that it makes sense to prepare ahead of time.

Apple has introduced a post-quantum cryptographic protocol called PQ3 in iMessage. This protocol, Apple claims, makes iMessage’s encryption “compromise-resilient”, and provides the messaging service with defenses against sophisticated quantum attacks. The company explains that messaging platforms typically use public key cryptography to secure communication between two devices, which is based on complex mathematical problems that are too computationally intensive for computers to solve. [Public key cryptography uses a public key to encrypt data and a private key to decrypt data. Only the private key holder can decrypt. For iMessage, each Apple device generates its own set of encryption keys, and the private keys are never exported to any external system.] However, with the rise of quantum computing, these problems could be solved, threatening encryption.

“Although quantum computers with this capability don’t exist yet, extremely well-resourced attackers can already prepare for their possible arrival by taking advantage of the steep decrease in modern data storage costs,” Apple says, explaining that it is preparing for such quantum computers in advance.

Does it make sense to introduce PQ3?

Given that Apple itself admits that no threat is currently posed by quantum computing, this move might seem like too much too soon, but some believe that it makes sense to prepare ahead of time. American cryptographer Matthew Green for instance, suggests that Apple’s step sends a useful message given that Apple often “sets the standard” for the rest of the industry. 

Global push to weaken encryption:

Apple’s decision to strengthen encryption comes at a time when messaging services are being pushed to weaken it. In 2023, the UK passed its Online Safety Bill which holds platforms responsible for ensuring that child sexual abuse material, or CSAM, is not being transmitted through their service. Under Clause 122 of this bill, the Office of Communications (OfCom, the UK’s communications regulator) can issue notices to providers of messaging services, requiring them to develop and deploy software that will scan phones for prohibited content. Messaging services were against this clause and had expressed their dissent in an open letter prior to the bill’s passing. Apple, notably, has raised concerns about the UK government’s plans to update the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016. It says that the updated act would require telecommunication services to notify the government of proposed changes to their products or services that could negatively impact the current ability of agencies to lawfully access data. Apple says that this would allow UK to secretly veto new user protections globally.

Encryption-breaking policies were also suggested in India last year. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) consultation paper on the regulation of online communication services (like iMessage), saw responses from telecom companies urging the regulator to employ a policy of “same service, same rules” —effectively saying that online communication services should comply with the same rules telecom companies have to follow. While the regulator has not come out with any directives post-consultation, if this suggestion were to be implemented, online communication services would have to comply with the Telecommunication Act, 2023. This act allows the government to notify standards for encryption and also empowers the government to intercept or detain messages. While the Communications Minister has assured that this act does not apply to online communication services, the government does intend to create a specific regulation for these services.

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