The NSA Spent $80 Million to Develop Quantum Computer That Could Theoretically Break Any Encryption

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One upside for the National Security Agency since whistleblower Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents about surveillance capabilities and practices is that the NSA is gaining the reputation as the agency that can do the impossible. The Washington Post reported Thursday about the NSA program “Penetrating Hard Targets,” a story which has only been bolstered by that reputation.

Despite the program’s potential for comedy-fodder (because of the name), it is perhaps the most ambitious computing project the NSA could possibly undertake: the development of a quantum computer that would be capable of any calculation in almost no time at all.

In a video for Big Think, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss describes how a quantum computer differs from the PCs we use every day. Rather than rely on microscopic silicon transistors, quantum computers calculate using atoms themselves and exploiting the quantum mechanical property of superposition.

Traditional computing relies on binary code—ones and zeros—that are fed to the processor in a linear fashion, essentially one at a time. In a quantum computer the information fed into the processor comes as one and a zero (and all decimals in-between). Applied to an NSA paradigm, this means that they could break any code and hack any system in a fraction of the time it would take on a conventional computer.

Yet despite the NSA’s ability to surprise the population with “diabolical” schemes and the $80 million they have invested in the program this, at least, remains mostly theoretical. A company known as D-Wave has claimed to have produced the first “commercial” quantum computer but experts such as theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and computer science professor Scott Aaronson (of MIT) find their claims somewhat dubious.

The problem with quantum superposition—with respect to particles or calculations in a computer—is that once a measurement is taken that quantum state has been broken down and the computer is no more powerful than a laptop. Until a practical method of retrieving the results has been discovered, for the NSA at least, the computing methods in place remain their best option for breaking through encryption.