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NSA Seeks to Build Quantum Computer That Could Crack Most Types of Encryption

The Washington Post (01/03/14) Steven Rich; Barton Gellman

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is trying to develop a quantum computer that could be used to crack almost any type of encryption currently in use, according to documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  The documents say the initiative is part of a $79.7-million research program called “Penetrating Hard Targets,” which is developing technology that potentially could be used to infiltrate all current forms of public key encryption.  The documents do not discuss the full extent of NSA’s research into quantum computing, although they do suggest the agency is no closer to building a quantum computer than the European Union and Switzerland, both of which are carrying out similar research efforts.  “It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Scott Aaronson.  University of Manchester professor Jeff Forshaw says the NSA is likely at least five years away from building a quantum computer, and possibly much more if no significant breakthroughs are made.  However, once completed, the computer could be used to crack almost every type of encryption used to protect state secrets and other sensitive information, such as 1,024-bit RSA encryption keys, which would take hundreds of standard computers working together about 2,000 years to crack.

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