Snowden Documents Reveal NSA Working On A Super Computer

Image: Snowden Documents Reveal NSA Working On A Super Computer

Thursday, 02 Jan 2014 09:01 PM

By Cathy Burke

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The National Security Agency is working on development of a super computer that can break most types of encryption, the Washington Post reported Thursday, citing documents from fugitive spy agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Building a mega-fast quantum computer is the holy grail for many in the scientific community, with potential benefits for medicine and even for the creation of artificial intelligence, The Post noted. There are also significant risks for national security.

"The application of quantum technologies to encryption algorithms threatens to dramatically impact the U.S. government's ability to both protect its communications and eavesdrop on the communications of foreign governments," one Snowden document warns, The Post reported.

But the Snowden documents hint NSA has a long way to go. "It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it," Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, told the newspaper.

According to the documents, the project is part of a $79.7 million research program, "Penetrating Hard Targets" in a lab in College Park, Maryland.

Encryption is a method of scrambling information with the noise of arbitrary character strings; only someone with a rubric could distinguish the noise from the message. The more noise, or bits, the more difficult it is to crack the code by trial and error, the magazine Tech Crunch noted. A 1,024-bit encryption, for example, could take years to decode.

The road to developing a quantum computer also entails the use of highly complicated quantum mechanics, The Post noted, quoting a pioneer in quantum computing, the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, as saying: "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

Still, by the end of September, the NSA is expected to be able to have some basic building blocks, The Post reported. "That's a great step, but it's a pretty small step on the road to building a large-scale quantum computer," explained MIT mechanical engineer, Lloyd Seth.

But it's not too soon to worry, another expert told The Post.

"The irony of quantum computing is that if you can imagine someone building a quantum computer that can break encryption a few decades into the future, then you need to be worried right now," Daniel Lidar, a professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California, told The Post.

The NSA declined to comment.

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