NSA Attempts to Crack Quantum Encryption

With, you guessed it…their very own quantum computer.

According to new documents leaked straight from the Snowden camp, for the past few years the NSA has been secretly building their answer to quantum computing solutions like the Q-Wave at an underground facility located somewhere at the government complex in Forte Meade, Maryland.

The primary target for this effort is the RSA encryption standard, named for the initials of the three researchers who originally pioneered the technology just over 30 years ago. Because RSA requires users to come up with two prime numbers that have been multiplied by themselves, the process of cracking through it requires immense power from current supercomputing technologies, with entire rooms of servers currently dedicated to the task at NSA headquarters.

In 2009 the encryption method finally revealed a chink in its supposedly impenetrable armor, however it took nearly two years and hundreds of high powered processors to finally make their way through all the mathematical muck protecting the files hidden within. In theory, quantum computing could cut this same effort in half, as the simultaneous nature of its binary code rips through anything that the old guard of 1’s and 0’s could come up with even on a good day.

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Built and maintained in a room surrounded by metal (known as a Faraday Cage), quantum computing is extremely sensitive to the outside environment, and even the slightest disruption of frequencies can send the entire system into haywire.

Since the slides first hit underground cables, dozens of scientists have come forward in light of the allegations to reassure the public that the NSA is likely no closer to their goal than anyone else might be in the race to achieve true quantum computing on a consistent or reliable basis. Several other top-tier technology outfits such as Google, Intel, and Apple have all been pouring their nearly-endless stream of resources into the same effort, and have come up with similar results in the bid to build a system that can handle a hell of a lot more qubits than they do today.

Here’s what MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering Seth Lloyd had to say on the subject:

“I don’t think we’re likely to have the type of quantum computer the NSA wants within at least five years, in the absence of a significant breakthrough maybe much longer. 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.”

Even with all their manpower and machines, it turns out the physical laws of the universe are where the buck stops for the lot of us — highly-funded government agency or otherwise. If we’re to believe the information included in the leak, so far the NSA has only achieved a two-qubit transistor system, where breaking RSA would require hundreds, or even thousands more to achieve anything feasible in the short-term.

Out of all the information we’ve learned over the past few months about this agency and its less-than-moral obligation to “protect our freedoms”, this doesn’t really surprise me. When I first heard about the Q-Wave I assumed the government had probably already discovered the technology before the private sector, and even their internal memos claim they haven’t gotten much further in their high-powered push into protons since.

In perspective this news is actually somewhat relieving, because it gives hope to the idea that in the next uphill battle for encryption standards; quantum is the holy grail, and right now not even the largest military in the world is a match for the combined might of every titan of technology currently on the hunt in Silicon Valley and beyond.