06 January 2014

NSA Building Encryption-Busting Super Computer

The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) is now developing a computer that, if successful, could break into nearly every type of encryption that currently exists. This would include encryption programs used to protect banking, medical, business and government records throughout the world.

The Washington Post attributes these findings to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia in June after leaking the classified documents to the media. This latest leak suggests that their effort is to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” – or what the Post refers to as a “machine exponentially faster than classical computers.” This research program, which could cost as much as $79.7 million, is reportedly titled “Penetrating Hard Targets.”

The work is allegedly being conducted under classified contracts at a laboratory in College Park, Md. the paper added.

Quantum computing is not solely in the domain of the government, and has long been a goal for many throughout the scientific community. Beyond being a tool to break encryption, quantum computing could offer a range of revolutionary uses.

Several organizations including DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Google have launched their own initiatives. In May the search giant along with NSA joined forces to create a new research laboratory that could use a quantum supercomputer to study artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Last year researchers at UC Santa Barbara also created a new quantum processor that would factor composite numbers in a way that could offer significant progress in the battle against cyber crime by creating more advanced encryption methods.

Now it appears that the NSA is pushing forward with efforts that go even further, and which would enable it to create a machine that could break through most encryption methods.

The Post also reported that computer scientists have speculated that the NSA’s efforts could be more advanced than those being conducted in the best civilian labs. However, the leaked documents provided by Snowden suggest that the NSA is no closer to a success than those other efforts.

“It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,” Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the MIT, told the Washington Post on Thursday.

The NSA apparently knew that it was in a close race with quantum computer labs sponsored by the European Union (EU) as well as the Swiss government.

“The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland,” one NSA document states, as reported by the Post.

While the paper also added that this particular NSA program apparently was part of the larger “Black Budget,” no individual company was named as assisting the agency in the development of a quantum computer.

In addition to the efforts to build a computer that could defeat most encryption technologies, there have also been reports that the NSA has looked at other means to get into secure networks.

Last month, other documents leaked by Snowden indicated that the NSA paid computer security firm RSA $10 million to create a secret back door into its encryption software. RSA, which is a division of EMC, quickly denied that it had provided the NSA with such a backdoor.

Snowden currently remains in Russia, and on Thursday the editorial board of The New York Times and the Guardian called on the US government to grant him clemency for exposing the NSA’s vast surveillance programs, which many are already decrying as illegal and unconstitutional.

Now read: Researchers crack RSA encryption by listening computer noise


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