Defense

Latest NSA Leak Nears Science Fiction Levels

Protestors demonstrated against the NSA program in October in Washington.

Protestors demonstrated against the NSA program in October in Washington. // Jose Luis Magana/AP

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 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 ones and zeros that make up computer processing.

A quantum computer isn't limited by ones 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 one and zero. Or to make your head explode, a qubit (a quantum bit) can be both a one 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 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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// April 22