NSA's Upcoming Computer To Crack Almost Any Code

by CXOtoday News Desk    Jan 03, 2014

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The U.S. National Security Agency is trying to develop a computer that could break most encryption programs, whether they are used to protect other nations’ spying programs or consumers’ bank accounts, according to a report by the Washington Post.

The report was based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reports Washington Post stating that the effort to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” is part of a $79.7 million research program titled “Penetrating Hard Targets.”

The development of a quantum computer has for long been a target the scientific community, as with the use of such a technology, all current forms of public key encryption could be broken, including those used in many secure Web sites as well as the types used to protect state secrets. Physicists and computer scientists have questioned whether the NSA’s efforts are more advanced than those of the best civilian labs. Though the full extent of the agency’s research is hidden, but the documents provided by Snowden suggest that the NSA is no closer to success than others in the scientific community.

Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted in Washingtonpost.com as saying, “It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it.”

A fully functional quantum computer would open the option to easily break the strongest encryption tools currently in use, including a standard called RSA, named after 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.

Quantum computers have many applications for today’s scientific community, including the creation of artificial intelligence. However, 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, according to the report.