Latest NSA Leak Nears Science Fiction Levels

Documents reveal the intelligence agency is racing NASA, Google, and the scientific community to build the most powerful computer in the world.

National Journal
Marina Koren and Brian Resnick
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Marina Koren Brian Resnick
Jan. 2, 2014, 12:59 p.m.

The latest in­tel­li­gence leak from Ed­ward Snowden may be the most sci­ence-fic­tion-like rev­el­a­tion yet: The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency is build­ing a quantum com­puter, a ma­chine thou­sands of times faster than the fast­est com­puters on the plan­et.

The NSA ac­know­ledged in 2009 that its re­search in­cludes quantum com­put­ing. But now we know that such tech­no­logy could be used to fur­ther by­pass pri­vacy en­cryp­tions on the Web.

“A work­ing quantum com­puter would open the door to eas­ily break­ing the strongest en­cryp­tion tools in use today,” ex­plains The Wash­ing­ton Post, which first re­por­ted the leak Thursday.

The NSA is not alone in the arms race for the world’s most power­ful com­puter. NASA, along with Google and the Uni­versit­ies Space Re­search As­so­ci­ation, pur­chased a $10 mil­lion ver­sion of the ma­chine in 2012 from Ca­na­dian com­pany D-Wave Sys­tems. The trio seeks to ap­ply the ma­chine in areas ran­ging from air traffic con­trol and ro­bot­ics to the search for hab­it­able plan­ets.

Sci­ent­ists say the value of quantum com­puters will be mak­ing sense or “op­tim­iz­ing” a world with in­creas­ingly com­plic­ated sets of data. The NSA, on the oth­er hand, has big­ger fish to fry than most. Its hy­po­thet­ic­al large-scale quantum com­puter could crack not only the di­git­al tools used to pro­tect on­line shop­pers’ fin­an­cial trans­ac­tions, but state secrets, too.

Quantum com­puters are a com­plete re­think­ing of com­put­ing. Tra­di­tion­al com­puters — even the most soph­ist­ic­ated ones — still rely on tran­sist­ors, elec­tric­al cir­cuits that are either switched on or off, pro­du­cing the lines of 1s and zer­os that make up com­puter pro­cessing.

A quantum com­puter isn’t lim­ited by 1s and zer­os. It in­tro­duces many more levels of com­plex­ity by tap­ping in­to the weird phys­ics of elec­trons, which can op­er­ate in sev­er­al states sim­ul­tan­eously. Quantum com­puters in­tro­duce many shades of 1 and zero. Or to make your head ex­plode, a qubit (a quantum bit) can be both a 1 and a zero at the same time.

And here’s why that’s a game changer: “Di­vid­ing or mul­tiply­ing num­bers is fairly easy for any com­puter, but de­term­in­ing the factors of a really large 500- or 600-di­git num­ber is next to im­possible for clas­sic­al com­puters,” ex­plains Na­tion­al Geo­graph­ic. “But quantum com­puters can pro­cess these num­bers eas­ily and sim­ul­tan­eously.” And mod­ern-day en­cryp­tion, ex­plains the Uni­versity of Wa­ter­loo, more or less re­lies on “math prob­lems that are too tough to solve.”

Just ex­plain­ing how quantum com­put­ing works re­quires talk­ing in mul­tiple uni­verses. It’s that crazy. But the ma­chines are finicky, and still in the earli­est stages of de­vel­op­ment. The NASA-Google com­puter needs to be shiel­ded from the Earth’s elec­tro­mag­net­ic field, and it takes a month to cal­ib­rate.

The NSA ap­pears to feel the same time and re­source con­straints that the space agency is deal­ing with. “Al­though the full ex­tent of the agency’s re­search re­mains un­known, the doc­u­ments provided by Snowden sug­gest that the NSA is no closer to suc­cess than oth­ers in the sci­entif­ic com­munity,” The Post writes.

While some sci­ent­ists say NASA’s ma­chine, which re­search­ers began test­ing this past fall, is not a true quantum com­puter, the agency says that “it will be the most power­ful in the world.” The latest NSA leak may sug­gest oth­er­wise.

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