Report: NSA Building Code-Cracking Quantum Computer

The effort to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” -- a machine exponentially faster than classical computers-- is part of a $79.7 million research program called “Penetrating Hard Targets.”

"If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics," said the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, widely regarded as the pioneer in quantum computing. The science video blog Vertiasium tries to help make sense of it.

According to documents released by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, the NSA is rushing to create a computer that can decipher virtually every type of encryption that guards banking, medical, and government records. The effort to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” -- a machine exponentially faster than classical computers -- is part of a $79.7 million research program called "Penetrating Hard Targets" that's taking place at a lab in College Park, Maryland.

WaPo:

"The development of a quantum computer has long been a goal of many in the scientific community, with revolutionary implications for fields such as medicine as well as for the NSA’s code-breaking mission. With such technology, all current forms of public key encryption would be broken, including those used on many secure Web sites as well as the type used to protect state secrets.

Physicists and computer scientists have long speculated about whether the NSA’s efforts are more advanced than those of the best civilian labs. Although the full extent of the agency’s research remains unknown, the documents provided by Snowden suggest that the NSA is no closer to success than others in the scientific community.

“It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,” said Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The NSA appears to regard itself as running neck and neck with quantum computing labs sponsored by the European Union and the Swiss government, with steady progress but little prospect of an immediate breakthrough. "

There are some companies, however, claiming to already be producing small quantum computers. A Canadian firm, D-Wave Systems , says it has been making quantum computers since 2009. In 2012, it sold a $10 million version to Google, NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, according to news reports.


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That quantum computer, however, would never be useful for breaking public key encryption like RSA.

“Even if everything they’re claiming is correct, that computer, by its design, cannot run Shor’s algorithm,” said Matthew Green, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, referring to the algorithm that could be used to break encryption like RSA.

About Diane Sweet

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Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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