NSA aims to build quantum computer that could crack world’s encryptions

BY newsdesk  January 2, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the National Security Agency is investing nearly $80 million into the construction of “a cryptologically useful” quantum computer — a device that would be capable of cracking various types of encryption around the world.

The effort is part of a research program entitled “Penetrating Hard Targets,” the Post said, citing documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Encryption is used, for example, to protect the sensitive data transmitted during online transactions, like passwords and credit card numbers. Reports from September 2013 revealed the agency’s attempts to defeat such protections.

The Washington Post report pointed to the difficulty of cracking one widely used form of encryption. That success required the use of hundreds of conventional computers over almost two years. A powerful quantum computer, in theory, could break the encryption with relative ease:

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.

What would be the timeframe to build such a powerful quantum computer? Seth Lloyd, professor of quantum mechanical engineering at MIT, told the Post it could be a while.

“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.”