In today's edition of The Edward Snowden Files, The Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency, with a plan that sounds like something Lex Luthor cooked up, is racing to build a quantum computer capable of cracking nearly every encryption system known to man.
The project is part of a nearly $80 million initiative called "Penetrating Hard Targets," and is housed in College Park, Md.
The idea of a quantum computer has long fascinated the scientific community, although "the documents provided by Snowden suggest that the NSA is no closer to success than others in the scientific community." But what is quantum computing? From The Verge:
Quantum computing hinges, very broadly, on allowing individual bits (called qubits) to contain superimposed values of zero and one, vastly increasing computing power. Its implications for cryptography, medicine, and research have made it a major goal for public services and private industry alike
The Post explains it thusly:
A classical computer uses binary bits, which are either zeroes or ones. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which are simultaneously zero and one … While a classical computer, however fast, must do one calculation at a time, a quantum computer can sometimes avoid having to make calculations that are unnecessary to solving a problem. That allows it to home in on the correct answer much more quickly and efficiently.
Got that? Make sense? Good. The NSA is, like all other organizations doing quantum research, probably nowhere close to having a plausible implementation, but if it should somehow create one, the vast computing power would make the agency's surveillance programs exponentially more powerful.
While a quantum would theoretically make encryption cracking a much faster process, it's not the only way that the NSA is exploring cracking the widely-used RSA encryption favored by many financial organizations and email services. In later December, Reuters reported that the agency had paid RSA $10 million for a back door into the near-ubiquitous security protocol.