FBI Chicago, Bloch Quantum Tech Hub partner to secure region’s quantum assets through first-of-its-kind conference

Industry, government, academic leaders met at Fermilab to build communication channels aimed at protecting emerging innovations, creating national model

A software engineer at Google was charged earlier this year with stealing hundreds of artificial intelligence secrets from the company and using them to help Chinese companies. A former General Electric engineer was convicted in 2022 of conspiring to steal trade secrets about the company’s gas and steam turbine technology, which he secretly embedded in a photo of a sunset and sent to an accomplice in China. An engineer in California was convicted in 2020 of stealing smartphone signal-filter technology from his company and sharing it with co-conspirators in China.

Although these breaches were related to other technologies, they are examples of what quantum technology developers could face as their field advances — and the Chicago region, which has become a central hub of US quantum innovation, is taking the lead in combating these threats now.  

The FBI’s Chicago office and the Chicago Quantum Exchange-led Bloch Quantum Tech Hub have partnered to secure the region’s quantum technology assets, holding a first-of-its-kind symposium last month to build communication channels between law enforcement and technology developers — an effort aimed at creating a national model for cooperation between the quantum ecosystem and the government agencies that protect the nation and its assets. The symposium, held at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, focused on exploring potential threats, sharing information about existing efforts, and building trust and familiarity among stakeholders.

“Quantum information science and technologies have the potential to create revolutionary advances and drive innovation across the global economy,” Executive Assistant Director Ryan T. Young of the FBI's Intelligence Branch said. “The FBI is committed to working with our partners in government, private industry, and academic institutions to safeguard American intellectual property, research and development, and sensitive technologies from adversaries who want to harm our economic and national security.”

If The Bloch Quantum is funded — the US Economic Development Administration-designated Tech Hub is vying for up to $70 million during Phase 2 of the EDA Tech Hubs program — it will appoint a risk mitigation leader within Bloch leadership who will act as a point person for security-related concerns and planning and for collaborating with the FBI and intelligence community. It will also create security resources specific to the Chicago quantum ecosystem.

“It’s an important step in building connections between quantum experts, including startups, and the national security community,” said CQE CEO Kate Timmerman, who participated in a panel that included experts from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the FBI, and the US Department of Commerce. 

The “Securing Our Quantum Assets” event, which drew stakeholders from industry, government, and academia, was the first in what will become an annual gathering if the EDA funds The Bloch Tech Hub. Over the course of the day, participants grappled with a paradox that is at the heart of 21st-century innovation: progress is often accelerated by widespread international collaboration — but that collaboration can also create openings for malicious actors.

“Both the CQE and The Bloch [are] thinking about quantum technologies at scale,” Timmerman said. “How do we take an ecosystem that's going to exponentially expand and make sure that it has that awareness, that knowledge, and the resources to mitigate security risks as it grows?”

The answer, she said, is to build the necessary communication channels early, before significant threats emerge.

“The Bloch is going to hold more forums like this: getting different people and organizations in a room, getting national security partners in the room with startups and researchers,” she said. “So as the ecosystem grows, those new entrants all get the opportunity to have the experience that we're having today.”

A new level of risk

Quantum computers, which could reach practical application in the next decade, will require particular attention, experts noted. A big enough quantum computer, for instance, could crack the security of critical systems that depend on mathematical formulas that a classical computer would struggle to solve — including banks, the US power grid, and certain government entities.

“Luckily, the quantum computer that can operate at a cryptographically relevant scale does not yet exist,” said Morgan Stern, senior quantum resistance lead at the National Security Agency (NSA). “We still have time to block the quantum threat.”

In 2022, the Biden administration released National Security Memorandum 10, which set a goal for the US government to be transitioned away from quantum vulnerable cryptography by 2035. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is tasked with creating and publishing a plan for this transition later this year.

“This is the largest cryptographic migration that has ever been initiated,” said Bill Newhouse, a cybersecurity engineer at NIST. “Today’s communication protocols that provide communication and network services for computer networks rely on public-key cryptography that is vulnerable to a cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer and standardized by international standards organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force.” 

The NIST Migration to Post-Quantum Cryptography project includes collaborators from Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.

A delicate balance

Another issue the group discussed: the quantum ecosystem’s need for talent from other countries. Foreign-born workers make up more than half of the US quantum workforce, according to the FBI.

“Our country has long been a destination for talented individuals,” Young said. “We must recognize that the FBI has a role to play in ensuring that remains the case. Investigating and preventing economic espionage and illicit technology transfer to adversarial governments are among the FBI’s most important work.”

Heavily discussed at the symposium was the idea that the US is not only competing with other countries technologically in the “quantum space race,” but also competing with them to attract the most talented students in the world.

Balancing these competitions is a delicate act.

“One of the strengths of the US intellectual system is that we get to attract the best and brightest talent,” said Harriet Kung, deputy director for science programs at the US Department of Energy. “How we maintain that openness while also securing our research, intellectual property, and assets is a major focus of a lot of interagency activities. And I really applaud the organizer of this symposium, as we contemplate the balance between the risks of incorporating foreign talent, but also the benefit in really securing the best talent to contribute to a new innovation ecosystem.”

Building trust and expertise

Several speakers were explicitly appreciative of the depth and breadth of experience among the symposium’s attendees, noting that such a complex issue requires a diversity of specialty. 

“One of the things I've really liked about today is walking through and meeting people from all walks of life,” said Tim Wood, senior operations analyst at NIST. “I've met scientists, I've met attorneys, I've met people from the FBI. And that breadth really is imperative for [an issue like this].”

“There was a lot of depth of knowledge and expertise on the panels today, so thanks a lot to our speakers and our hosts,” Young said. “Events like these don’t just happen, they happen with a lot of work. To get leaders in academia, federal government, and private industry to come here and have these conversations is very, very important in such a complex situation.”

At the end of the symposium, Jonathan Felbinger, the deputy director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C®), brought up several historical examples of global competition for technologies, including sophisticated intelligence operations on both sides during the Cold War. He said he believes the US is well-situated to respond effectively to outside threats to its quantum assets. The QED-C, a consortium that enables and expands the U.S. quantum industry, is managed by SRI International. 

“The outlook is quite promising. Today’s environment is conducive to sustained US leadership and partnership among like-minded countries, but not without challenges,” Felbinger said. “Several of the circumstances are quite familiar with regard to history, and we even have new tools at our disposal today. Through efforts like those discussed today, we have opportunities to assess the evolving environment and reinforce our partnerships to protect the economic and national security of the United States.”