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NSA working on building an encryption-busting quantum computer

Ross Patton

US spy agency the NSA is working on building a quantum computer it hopes will be able to crack through almost all types of encryption, according to the latest documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

In a report by the Washington Post, which has seen the documents, it is claimed that the computer will be “cryptologically useful” and will be able to crack into banking, medical, business and government records around the world. It is currently being built at a laboratory in College Park, Maryland as part of a $79.7m (¬£48.4m) programme called “Penetrating Hard Targets”.

The newspaper reports that experts think it unlikely the NSA is any further ahead of physicists and computer scientists working on developing quantum computers at other, non-secret labs sponsored by the likes of the European Union and the Swiss government.

The report is based on the documents supplied to the paper by former NSA contractor Snowden, who currently has temporary asylum in Russia. They suggest that the agency carries out research in Faraday cages “to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running” by preventing electromagnetic energy entering or leaving the labs.

Quantum computers are being developed by most for scientific reasons, including creating artificial intelligence, but if the NSA managed to develop such a machine the agency would be able to break high-bit encryption codes such as the RSA public-key cryptosystem, which is widely used and based on the practical difficulty of factoring the product of two prime numbers. To do this, the quantum computer would need to have a sufficient number of qubits to be able to run Shor’s algorithm, which can be used to find prime factors.

The agency is also targeting RSA encryptions using quantum-based research to support quantum-based attacks, the paper says, through another project called “Owning the Net” — which, in case you were still in any doubt about the NSA’s ambitions, is pretty revealing.


In addition to the bulk data that the NSA collects through court orders, it has also been accused of intercepting traffic from Yahoo and Google data centres. Only this week a report in German newspaper Der Spiegel¬†claimed that for years the agency has also compromised devices including PCs, iPhones, hard drives and routers — sometimes even intercepting them on transit from vendors to customers. The paper also accuses the agency of installing backdoors into European telecom networks and BlackBerry’s network operation centre.