The National Security Agency (NSA) is apparently developing its own quantum computer that will be able to crack most types of encryption, reveal documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Washington Post. The agency’s spying efforts and tech tools used to obtain sensitive information from targets have been detailed in many recent reports, but it looks like the NSA is not happy with its current spying capabilities. The agency is working on a “cryptologically useful quantum computer” part of a $79.7 million research program called “Penetrating Hard Targets.”
Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which can be simultaneously zero and one, instead of binary bits (zeros and ones). Thus, a quantum computer could perform some computations faster than regular computers, such as breaking the RSA encryption used by many online services.
However, to build such a computer capable of breaking RSA encryption, a quantum computer would need hundreds of thousands of qubits. According to the document, by the end of September the NSA expected to have some “building blocks,” the Washington Post writes, “which it described in a document as “dynamical decoupling and complete quantum control on two semiconductor qubits.”
In addition to packing enough qubits, a quantum computer also needs to be safely protected from external influences. “Quantum computers are extremely delicate,“ professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California Daniel Lidar said. “So if you don’t protect them from their environment, then the computation will be useless.”
Quantum computing is also a cause for concern for the NSA, as other entities that would gain such capabilities would also be able to spy on other parties, NSA included. “The application of quantum technologies to encryption algorithms threatens to dramatically impact the U.S. government’s ability to both protect its communications and eavesdrop on the communications of foreign governments,” the leaked internal document said.
The NSA is not the only party interested in quantum computing, as other researchers are studying the matter. Associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Scott Aaronson believes that the agency can’t be “far ahead of the open world [in quantum computing] without anybody knowing it.”
A second project called “Owning the Net” and detailed in the documents reportedly uses quantum research to support “the creation of quantum-based attacks on encryptions like RSA,” the publication writes.
The following video from Veritasium explains how a quantum computer would work.