NSA is working on a quantum computer to break all encryption

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

January 6, 2014

NSA spy 2Although this news, based on evidence released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, has hit the headlines over the last few days, it is (probably) not time to panic (yet).

Anyone connected with online security has long suspected that the NSA would love to get its mitts on a computer that would render all known encryption obsolete, and it is a bit of a shock to learn that the NSA considers its efforts on a par with the best European Union and the Swiss government sponsored labs (which are considered the best in the world),

‘The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland’ says an NSA document.

However, unless its efforts are considerably in advance of any civilian work, there is little to worry about for at least five years, and possibly up to one hundred.

‘It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,’ said Scott Aaronson, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Quantum computing, which could revolutionise science, medicine, and just about every aspect of the modern world, is something of a philosophers stone for the scientific community, and while progress towards its realisation is advancing at a steady pace, there is still a long way to go,

‘I don’t think we’re likely to have the type of quantum computer the NSA wants within at least five years, in the absence of a significant breakthrough maybe much longer’ said MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering, Seth Lloyd.

Unlike conventional computers which perform calculations in sequential order using binary bits (i.e. each bit represents either a one or a zero), quantum computers use the principle of quantum superposition, where each quantum bit (qubit) can represent one, zero or any quantum superposition state of these values. The more qubits involved in a calculation, the exponentially larger the number of superposition states, which means that when it comes to quantum computers size matters, with larger computers able to  perform much more complex and faster calculations than smaller ones (as they can handle more qubits).

Unfortunately the NSA may be one of the best funded research organizations into quantum computing in the world, which is a shame because while quantum computing may hold the key to developing artificial intelligence, curing cancer, cracking renewable energy, and who knows what else, the NSA want to use it for the purpose of ‘Breaking strong encryption’. Most specifically, the NSA seems interested in cracking all public key encryption including RSA, which is used almost universally to secure websites and private email conversations.

Although it seems very unlikely that the NSA can currently use quantum computing in any meaningful way to crack encryption, the future is another matter, and when you consider that it currently hoovers up all internet communication that it can’t decrypt for decryption when it can, the picture becomes very chilling.

‘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,” said Daniel Lidar, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California.

The best defence netizens have against such NSA storage of encrypted data and potential future decryption, is to use more encryption, as if everyone starts to use strong encryption then the task of an NSA quantum computer would be made much more arduous. Although it is thought that a sufficiently large quantum computer could make mincemeat of even 2048-bit RSA, if a large numbers of people used it (or stronger encryption e.g. 4096-bit RSA) all the time, then the scale of the NSA spying effort would be exponentially more difficult.

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