NSA working on quantum computer to break any encryption

The spy agency is reportedly in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to own the mother of all decryption machines.

Dan Farber
2 min read
Part of the cooling apparatus used to keep the quantum computer at near-absolute zero degrees. Quantum computers require isolation from external environments. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The National Security Agency has a vast toolkit for getting access any kind of electronics equipment, but it pales compared to a quantum computer, which could break the strongest encryption in much less time than conventional, transistor-based computers.

According to report in The Washington Post and based on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the spy agency is in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to build the mother of all decryption machines. This is similar to the Manhattan project, the race to build atomic bombs 75 years ago.

Research labs around the world, companies such as IBM and Google, and countries are working to harness quantum mechanics for drug discovery, predictive analysis, machine learning and complex optimization for areas such as finance and logistics.

The NSA has allocated nearly $80 million for quantum computer development, with most of the work taking place at the Laboratory for Physical Sciences at University of Maryland's College Park campus. Conventional computers require binary data (ones and zeroes), whereas quantum computers uses qubits, which can represent one, zero, and any state in between. This allows quantum computers to operate much faster than a conventional computer.

An internal NSA document provided to The Washington Post by Snowden stated: "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." It's unclear how far along the NSA is with adding such a powerful machine to its crypto-arsenal.

The NSA declined to comment on the report.

D-Wave Systems has developed quantum computers, and sold $10 million units to Google, Lockheed Martin, and NASA. However, scientists say that D-Wave's quantum computer doesn't have enough power to be useful in cryptography.

The report on the NSA's quantum computing development follows aDer Speigel story a 50-page product catalog of tools and techniques that the agency uses to gain access to computers, hard drives, routers, phones and other devices.