The US agency is building a machine that could make all encryption obsolete
The US National Security Agency (NSA) is building a quantum computer that has the potential to break all popular cryptographic algorithms, as well as create completely new types of encryption.
Quantum computers can theoretically solve complex problems massively faster than conventional systems, and the NSA has a $79.7 million (£48.5m) research programme called “Penetrating Hard Targets” to try and develop one, according to classified documents supplied by Edward Snowden and published by the Washington Post. It is not clear whether the NSA laboratories are ahead of the results achieved by the wider scientific community – or anywhere near providing practical quantum computing at all.
Even before Snowden first disclosed details of the US agency’s surveillance practices, encryption was already used by businesses and individuals that wished to keep their communications private. However theoretical it is at present, the NSA’s project could one day render these efforts pointless.
Yahoo recently announced it would introduce encryption across all of its products and services by March 2014. Microsoft is reportedly considering a similar move. Google had started securing its information a while ago, but the adoption of encryption measures was accelerated after the start of the NSA scandal.
Be very afraid
Quantum computers interact with information using quantum bits or ‘qubits’, which can mean both ‘1’ and’0’ simultaneously. These machines can therefore process multiple inputs at the same time – effectively in parallel universes – and determine the right answer to problems which have a huge numbers of possible solutions, as long as their qubits can be kept in a coherent state, isolated from the outside world.
These properties are especially useful in cryptography, AI development and high performance computing, where quantum computers can solve certain problems much faster than conventional machines.
The NSA has been accused of indiscriminately collecting phone records and online communications in various countries around the world, and the debate about whether its spying on US citizens could be considered unconstitutional is still raging on.
Ownership of a quantum computer would allow the agency to use the ‘brute force’ approach to crack conventional encryption methods, breaching the last line of defence against excessive surveillance.
According to the Washington Post, contracts related to the “Penetrating Hard Targets” programme are classified and all work is conducted in a purpose-built laboratory featuring large Faraday cages – enclosures designed to block external electric fields.
“The application of quantum technologies to encryption algorithms threatens to dramatically impact the US government’s ability to both protect its communications and eavesdrop on the communications of foreign governments,” said an internal memo leaked by Snowden.
While there’s some concern about the programme, no company has managed to build a fully operational, large-scale quantum computer yet.
So far, the most successful attempt at creating such a device has been made by D-Wave, the first and only commercial quantum computer company, which has sold its designs to clients including Google and NASA. However, the D-Wave chips cannot run the specific algorithm used to match long prime numbers and break encryption.
The NSA had been previously accused of paying $10 million to security software developer RSA in order to get ‘backdoors’ into two of its cryptography tools. RSA categorically denied the allegations.
Meanwhile Edward Snowden, charged with espionage in the US, is reportedly working as tech support for a major Russian website.
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