Documents passed to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden have revealed that the NSA is trying to build a quantum computer (which would be exponentially faster than classical computers) as part of an $80 million dollar project called “Penetrating Hard Targets”.
The encryption they are seeking to compromise is used to protect almost all private information: banking, medical, business and government records among others. What makes a quantum computer so much more powerful than a regular computer? Basically, no matter how fast a regular computer is, it can only do one calculation at a time.
Quantum mechanics is based off the principle of superposition: the idea that an object simultaneously exists in all possible states. So instead of using binary bits (the ones and zeros that are behind all programs), a quantum computer uses quantum bits, which are both one and zero at the same time.
Side-note: I know this sounds extremely far-fetched and illogical, but the whole field of quantum mechanics is like that. Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate widely regarded as the pioneer of the quantum-computing field, famously said,
If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
Because of these quantum attributes, a quantum computer would be able to recognize and avoid calculations that aren’t necessary for solving the problem, allowing it to reach a solution much more quickly.
According to the documents released by Snowden, the NSA is worried that quantum technologies will soon jeopardize the government’s privacy and render their current code-breaking techniques useless. Here’s an excerpt from the documents:
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.”
Although quantum computers built by the Canadian company D-WAVE Systems were recently sold to Google, NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, this computer is not useful for breaking encryption codes, as it is unable to run Shor’s algorithm, which is necessary for breaking encryptions.
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