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NSA building a ‘quantum computer’ capable of breaking all forms of encryption

Published time: January 02, 2014 22:18
Edited time: January 03, 2014 18:36
Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch

Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch

The National Security Agency is reportedly building a ‘quantum computer’ capable of breaking encryption used to protect the most vital records around the world.

The US spy agency is seeking an advanced-speed, “cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can bypass encryption that currently shields global banking, business, medical and government records.

The quantum computer is part of a $79.7 million research project called “Penetrating Hard Targets,” according to documents supplied by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by The Washington Post. Much of the program is hosted in a College Park, Maryland laboratory under classified contracts.

Past Snowden-fueled revelations have shown the NSA has worked to deliberately weaken common encryption standards.

Yet the NSA’s own technology capable of shattering all forms of public key encryption - including that which protects state secrets - is no closer to success than any other attempts in the scientific community, according to the leaked documents.

“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,” according to one Snowden-leaked document.

The NSA appears to consider its efforts running at the same pace as competitors sponsored by the European Union and the Swiss government, with incremental progress yet little hope of much of a breakthrough.

“The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland,” one NSA document says.

The NSA did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.

The documents indicate that the NSA runs some of the research in large, protected rooms designed to shield electromagnetic energy from entering or leaving and “to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running,” as one description goes.

The basic principle in quantum computing is “quantum superposition,” or the idea that an object simultaneously exists in all states. A classic computer uses binary bits, or zeroes and ones. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, that are simultaneously zero and one.

While a classic computer must do one calculation at a time, a quantum computer can achieve a correct answer much faster and efficiently through parallel processing, with no need to run those calculations.

A difficulty in quantum computing is that the particles that make up such computers must be carefully isolated from external environments.

“Quantum computers are extremely delicate, so if you don’t protect them from their environment, then the computation will be useless,” said Daniel Lidar, a professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California.

A quantum computer would break the strongest encryption tools, including RSA, which scrambles communications enough to render them unreadable to anyone outside of the intended recipient, without using a shared password. RSA security is based on the extreme difficulty in finding two large prime numbers. In 2009, classical methods took almost two years and hundreds of computers to discover primes in a 768-bit number. Breaking the 1,024-bit encryption, standard for online transactions, would take 1,000 times longer, scientists estimated.

Quantum computers could home in on 1024-bit encryption much faster. And though such capabilities have a variety of uses, including the development of artificial intelligence, the NSA claims to fear the national security implications of not attaining the technology first.

A decade ago, experts estimated a large quantum computer was 10 to 100 years away. Five years ago, Seth Lloyd, professor of quantum mechanical engineering at MIT, said such a computer was 10 years away.

“I don’t think we’re likely to have the type of quantum computer the NSA wants within at least five years, in the absence of a significant breakthrough maybe much longer,” Lloyd recently told the Post.

Some companies claim to have already built small quantum computers. D-Wave Systems says it has produced them since 2009. The company sold a US$10 million version to Google, NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, according to reports. Though this technology is still far from cracking, for example, RSA encryption.

Experts say a top difficulty in building a quantum computer is achieving an adequate number of qubits, which is tough given the computers’ fragile state.

The NSA expected to have basic architecture in place by September, or as it was described in the leaked documents, a “dynamical decoupling and complete quantum control on two semiconductor qubits.”

“That’s a great step, but it’s a pretty small step on the road to building a large-scale quantum computer,” Lloyd said.

This step “will enable initial scaling towards large systems in related and follow-on efforts,” according to the National Intelligence Program’s “black budget” details on the “Penetrating Hard Targets” project.

Another program on the NIP budget is known as “Owning the Net,” which uses quantum research to target encryptions like RSA, the leaks show.

“The irony of quantum computing is that if you can imagine someone building a quantum computer that can break encryption a few decades into the future, then you need to be worried right now,” Lidar told The Washington Post.