New reporting from the Washington Post, based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed Thursday that the spy agency has "been racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world."
Specifically, the previously secret program according to the Post, is part of a nearly $80 million research project codenamed “Penetrating Hard Targets” tasked with building what is referred to as “a cryptologically useful quantum computer.”
Such a machine, faster than classical computer, would theoretically allow the NSA to overpower other computer systems and bypass security measures installed to protect financial, medical, and other highly sensitive pieces of private information.
According to the Post:
The development of a quantum computer has long been a goal of many in the scientific community, with revolutionary implications for fields such as medicine as well as for the NSA’s code-breaking mission. With such technology, all current forms of public key encryption would be broken, including those used on many secure Web sites as well as the type used to protect state secrets.
Physicists and computer scientists have long speculated about 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.
Critics have blasted the NSA for their obsession with encryption, saying that previously disclosed efforts by the NSA to create so-called "backdoors" into computer security platforms paves the way for additional malicious attacks and weakens the overall structure of the internet.
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A separate portion of the story also mentions the existence of a project called "Owning The Net." The article does not go into details about the program but the name suggests much about its possible purpose.
The Post article describes how the NSA is in seeming competition to build a workable quantum computer against some of the most advanced public and private research institutes in the world. How far along they are in actually achieving a workable model remains unclear. According to the Post:
Quantum computers have many applications for today’s scientific community, including the creation of artificial intelligence. But the NSA fears the implications for national security.
“The application of quantum technologies to encryption algorithms threatens to dramatically impact the US government’s ability to both protect its communications and eavesdrop on the communications of foreign governments,” according to an internal document provided by Snowden.
Experts are not sure how soon a quantum computer would be feasible. A decade ago, some experts said that developing a large quantum computer was likely 10 to 100 years in the future. Five years ago, Lloyd said the goal was at least 10 years away.
Last year, Jeff Forshaw, a professor at the University of Manchester, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “It is probably too soon to speculate on when the first full-scale quantum computer will be built but recent progress indicates that there is every reason to be optimistic.”