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Rich and Gellman report: "In room-size metal boxes ­secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world."

The NSA is seeking a faster computer to break codes. (photo: Shutterstock)
The NSA is seeking a faster computer to break codes. (photo: Shutterstock)

NSA Seeks to Build Quantum Computer That Could Crack Most Types of Encryption

By Steven Rich and Barton Gellman, The Washington Post

03 January 14


n room-size metal boxes ­secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world.

According to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, 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 titled "Penetrating Hard Targets." Much of the work is hosted under classified contracts at a laboratory in College Park, Md.

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.

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

Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering, said the NSA's focus is not misplaced. "The E.U. and Switzerland have made significant advances over the last decade and have caught up to the U.S. in quantum computing technology," he said.

The NSA declined to comment for this article.

The documents, however, indicate that the agency carries out some of its research in large, shielded rooms known as Faraday cages, which are designed to prevent electromagnetic energy from coming in or out. Those, according to one brief description, are required "to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running."

The basic principle underlying quantum computing is known as "quantum superposition," the idea that an object simultaneously exists in all states. A classical computer uses binary bits, which are either zeroes or ones. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which are simultaneously zero and one.

This seeming impossibility is part of the mystery that lies at the heart of quantum theory, which even theoretical physicists say no one completely understands.

"If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics," said the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who is widely regarded as the pioneer in quantum computing.

Here's how it works, in theory: While a classical computer, however fast, must do one calculation at a time, a quantum computer can sometimes avoid having to make calculations that are unnecessary to solving a problem. That allows it to home in on the correct answer much more quickly and efficiently.

Quantum computing is difficult to attain because of the fragile nature of such computers. In theory, the building blocks of such a computer might include individual atoms, photons or electrons. To maintain the quantum nature of the computer, these particles would need to be carefully isolated from their 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 working quantum computer would open the door to easily breaking the strongest encryption tools in use today, including a standard known as RSA, named for the initials of its creators. RSA scrambles communications, making them unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient, without requiring the use of a shared password. It is commonly used in Web browsers to secure financial transactions and in encrypted ­e-mails. RSA is used because of the difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers. Breaking the encryption involves finding those two numbers. This cannot be done in a reasonable amount of time on a classical computer.

In 2009, computer scientists using classical methods were able to discover the primes within a 768-bit number, but it took almost two years and hundreds of computers to factor it. The scientists estimated that it would take 1,000 times longer to break a 1,024-bit encryption key, which is commonly used for online transactions.

A large-scale quantum computer, however, could theoretically break a 1,024-bit encryption much faster. Some leading Internet companies are moving to 2,048-bit keys, but even those are thought to be vulnerable to rapid decryption with a quantum computer.

Quantum computers have many applications for today's scientific community, including the creation of artificial intelligence. But the NSA fears the implications for national security.

"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 an internal document provided by Snowden.

Experts are not sure how soon a quantum computer would be feasible. A decade ago, some experts said that developing a large quantum computer was likely 10 to 100 years in the future. Five years ago, Lloyd said the goal was at least 10 years away.

Last year, Jeff Forshaw, a professor at the University of Manchester, told Britain's Guardian newspaper, "It is probably too soon to speculate on when the first full-scale quantum computer will be built but recent progress indicates that there is every reason to be optimistic."

"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 told The Washington Post in a recent interview.

Some companies, however, claim 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.

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.

Experts think that one of the largest hurdles to breaking encryption with a quantum computer is building a computer with enough qubits, which is difficult given the very fragile state of quantum computers. By the end of September, the NSA expected to be able to have some building blocks, which it described in a document as "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.

A quantum computer capable of breaking cryptography would need hundreds or thousands more qubits than that.

The budget for the National Intelligence Program, commonly referred to as the "black budget," details the "Penetrating Hard Targets" project and noted that this step "will enable initial scaling towards large systems in related and follow-on efforts."

Another project, called "Owning the Net," is using quantum research to support the creation of quantum-based attacks on encryptions like RSA, documents 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 said. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # RMDC 2014-01-03 10:48
Well, the NSA has an infinite amount of money to spend stealing information from everyone on earth. So it is not surprising to see that they are going after the hardest targets.

It might be nice if they hacked into JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs to find out the real nature of the fraud, bribery, and corruption that keeps these banks going. but the NSA would never do that. It will hack into environmental groups, animal rights protesters, anti-war groups -- all of which don't even use any encruption because they have no secrets to hide.

The NSA is a criminal organization. Too bad there is no governemnt or justice system in the US big enough to take it on.
+11 # Billy Bob 2014-01-03 11:30
I wonder if a quantum computer could have a soul, and could teach the NSA what it means to have a soul too. Maybe a quantum computer could refuse to destroy people's lives and refuse to spy on every aspect of the lives of every innocent person on Earth, even though it "can".

Why is it that every optimistic science fiction prediction from the '50s never happened, but ALL of the most pessimistic ones are inevitable?
0 # happycamper690 2014-01-03 13:22
Would someone kindly explain how an atom can simultaneously be in two different states, and, if it could, how that condition can contain information. It would seem that if something is both up and down, or + and - at the same time, that is then more nearly neither.
+4 # Billy Bob 2014-01-03 13:35
An atom is not what we're talking about. We're talking about sub-atomic particles so small that, to compare them to an atom, an apt analogy would be a marble inside Yankee Stadium.

Atoms are already too small to ever see (because microscopes are made of atoms). So, this is based completely on math. The facts of quantum physics defy our normal relationship with reality.

The truth, also defies our normal relationship with reality. The Universe is a much stranger place than human beings can completely comprehend.

If you have the time and inclination, look up what Roger Penrose and Stuart Hammeroff are saying about all of this. They are both well respected (Penrose is a world famous physicist). And, they both claim there's evidence of a Universal mind or intelligence underlying all matter. In other words, mind is more fundamental than matter.

In fact, they go so far as to say, you may have a scientifically verifiable soul that will live long after your brain deteriorates - and may even be eternal.

Please note, these are NOT "creationist" or anti-Darwin pseudo-scientis ts. They're the real deal, and I believe Penrose may have gone into this, as an outspoken atheist.
+2 # Billy Bob 2014-01-03 13:38
By the way, all modern electronics would be impossible unless the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics is correct. I think even TV sets and radios would be impossible.
+2 # Billy Bob 2014-01-03 16:51
I didn't give you that negative. It was a good question and I don't think it should be punished. Since I didn't vote at all, I'll try to cancel it.
+11 # Vardoz 2014-01-03 13:23
Oh great so as we are being impoverished, abused economically and environmentally assaulted as us tax payers are being forced to pay tens of billions for them to to look up our asses! There are 51,000 homeless people in NYC alone. Most of them are children. There are tens of millions of working poor and the middle class is collapsing- Do they give a damn? Does the NSA or anyone give a rats ass about protecting anyone except the special interests? The NSA is a sheer abuse of power and has nothing to do with protecting us- if they were so interested in protecting American citizens then perhaps they could have used some of the trillions that were given to Wall street for quantitative easing to actually save people's lives!!!!! This whole spying business is to hide how much we are being abused as they get a blank check during a very difficult economic time for the majority of American citizens! Not only do we no longer have any privacy but also no right to due process- all our civil liberties have been shredded in favor of a corporate free for all-
+8 # Billy Bob 2014-01-03 13:36
You're absolutely right. The NSA is trying to protect the rich, at the expense of everyone else. They don't work for us. We just pay them.
+2 # Ravencroak 2014-01-03 13:38
I find it fascinating that the NSA is frantically working to make the currency it trades in and most values--informa tion--so ubiquitous that it will essentially become worthless. If absolutely nothing is a secret, then secrets have no value. It becomes the sort of inflationary scenario where it takes a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread. Words like"scandal" will lose the little meaning they still have, and Alexander and his ilk will just look like the pathetic wizard behind the curtain...
+6 # tedrey 2014-01-03 15:52
It is clear that the people in the NSA do not understand democracy, place no value on civil rights, and find the idea of an open society abhorrent. They are the last people in the world to be trusted with such a quantum computer.

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