National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

NSA races to build computer that can break encryption

  • Article by: Steven Rich and Barton Gellman
  • Washington Post
  • January 2, 2014 - 8:59 PM


– In room-size metal boxes, secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records worldwide.

According to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the effort to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” — a machine exponentially faster than classical computers — is part of a $79.7 million research program titled “Penetrating Hard Targets.” Much of the work is being done at a lab in College Park, Md.

The development of a quantum computer has long been a goal of the scientific community, with dramatic implications for fields like medicine as well as for NSA code-breaking.

With such technology, all forms of public key encryption would be broken, including those used on many secure websites as well as the type used to protect state secrets.

Success is not imminent

Physicists and computer scientists have long speculated whether the NSA’s efforts are more advanced than those of the best civilian labs. 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.

“It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,” said Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The NSA appears to regard itself as competing with quantum computing labs sponsored by the European Union and the Swiss, with progress but little prospect of a breakthrough.

“The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland,” one NSA document states.

Seth Lloyd, professor of quantum mechanical engineering at MIT, said the NSA’s focus is not misplaced. “The E.U. and Switzerland have … caught up to the U.S. in quantum computing technology,” he said.

The NSA declined to comment for this story.

The documents, however, indicate that the agency carries out some of its research in shielded rooms. They are designed to prevent electromagnetic energy from coming in or out and are required “to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running.”

Defining quantum computing

The principle that underlies quantum computing is known as “quantum superposition,” the idea that an object simultaneously exists in all states.

A classical computer uses binary bits, which are either zeros or ones. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which are simultaneously zero and one.

This seeming impossibility is part of the mystery at the heart of quantum theory, which even theoretical physicists say no one fully understands.

Here’s how it works, in theory: While a classical computer, however fast, must do one calculation at a time, a quantum computer can sometimes avoid calculations that are unnecessary in solving a problem. That allows it to identify the correct answer more quickly and efficiently.

Quantum computing is so difficult to attain because of the fragile nature of such computers. In theory, building blocks might include individual atoms, photons or electrons.

“Quantum computers are extremely delicate, so if you don’t protect them from their environment, then the computation will be useless,” said Daniel Lidar, director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California.

A working quantum computer would open the door to easily breaking the strongest encryption tools in use today.

The budget for the National Intelligence Program detailed the “Penetrating Hard Targets” project and noted that it “will enable initial scaling towards large systems in related and follow-on efforts.”

© 2014 Star Tribune