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NSA trying to build a quantum computer

It's a commonly-repeated wisdom in the technology world: whenever a new advance looks set to usher in the world of tomorrow for us mere mortals, you can be sure that certain secretive wings of the government have been doing it since the day before yesterday.

This appears to be the case with the much-anticipated development of quantum computing.

According to new documents (opens in new tab) released by Edward Snowden, the American National Security agency (NSA) has been trying to build a quantum computer, with the aim of rendering all modern encryption methods useless.

The power of quantum computers lies in the fact that they could perform several calculations at once, instead of queuing them up in a single thread. While a classical bit can be either a zero or a one, a quantum qubit can be both at the same time. This massive leap in computing power would make the so-called brute force guessing of complex encryption keys much more feasible.

The research is part of a $79.7 million (£48.4 million) research programme called "Penetrating Hard Targets," which itself forms part of the programme ominously called "Owning the Net."

According to the leaked slides, the NSA's research was conducted in order to create the basic building block of a quantum computer, known as a qubit – the equivalent of a bit in common transistor-based computing.

The NSA optimistically hope that this advance "will enable initial scaling towards large systems in related follow-on efforts."

If such a quantum machine were made, its immensely powerful bulk of computing muscle would render all public key encryption - including RSA, which is used for most secure websites (opens in new tab), encrypted email conversations and banking transactions - all but useless.

The agency apparently carries out some of its research in large, shielded rooms known as Faraday cages, which are designed to prevent electromagnetic energy from entering or leaving the test chamber. According to one brief mention, these are required "to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running."

However, it doesn't seem as though the NSA has any significant head start on the labs working on quantum computing in the European Union (EU) and Switzerland.

Another document (opens in new tab) listing both classified and unclassified information relating to quantum computing research also reveals some fascinating items of information about the direction of the NSA's research.

For instance, it's an unclassified and public piece of information that the NSA is conducting quantum research along with members of the academic community. However, the "reason for a significant change in size or direction of the NSA QC research program" is confidential.

Similarly, the fact that the "NSA has determined that a specific classical public-key cryptography design is or is not secure against QC attack" is secret.

The "existence or nonexistence of any NSA plan or program to build a cryptoanalytic-scale quantum computer" is labelled "Top Secret".

Companies such as IBM (opens in new tab) have been working for years to develop a quantum computer, along with scientists in Canada who recently broke a quantum world record (opens in new tab) for holding a quantum memory state for 39 minutes – 100 times longer than was previously possible - and scientists across Europe.

The newest NSA revelations come just two days after two newspapers, The New York Times and The Guardian, called for the Obama administration to give clemency to Edward Snowden due to the service he has done to the world as a whistleblower.

Image: Flickr (wylieconlon; D.H. Parks)

Paul Cooper
Paul Cooper

Paul has worked as an archivist, editor and journalist, and has a PhD in the cultural and literary significance of ruins. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The BBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and he was previously Staff Writer and Journalist at ITProPortal.