According to new reports, the NSA is building a quantum computer to break the encryption that keeps messages secure.
The NSA project came to light in documents passed to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The agency hopes to harness the special qualities of quantum computers to speed up its code-cracking efforts.
The NSA is believed to have spent about $80 million on the project but it has yet to produce a working machine.
If the NSA managed to develop a working quantum computer it would be put to work breaking encryption systems used online and by foreign governments to keep official messages secure, suggest the documents excerpted in the Post.
The quantum computer is being developed under a research program called Penetrating Hard Targets and is believed to be conducted out of a lab in Maryland.
The NSA is building a quantum computer to break the encryption that keeps messages secure
Many research groups around the world are pursuing the goal of creating a working quantum computer but those developed so far have not been able to run the algorithms required to break contemporary encryption systems.
Current computers attempt to crack encryption via many different means but they are limited to generating possible keys to unscramble data one at a time. Using big computers can speed this up but the huge numbers used as keys to lock away data limits the usefulness of this approach.
By contrast, quantum computers exploit properties of matter that, under certain conditions, mean the machine can carry out lots and lots of calculations simultaneously. This makes it practical to try all the possible keys protecting a particular message or stream of data.
The hard part of creating a working quantum computer is keeping enough of its constituent computational elements, called qubits, stable so they can interact and be put to useful work.
The NSA is not believed to have made significant breakthroughs in its work that would put it ahead of research efforts elsewhere in the US and Europe. However, the documents passed to the Post by Edward Snowden suggest the NSA’s researchers are having some success developing the basic building blocks for the machine.
[youtube mSLXf2UclKE 650]
2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the US for their work with light and matter at the most fundamental level.
Serge Haroche and David Wineland will share the prize, worth 8 million Swedish krona ($1.2 million).
Their “quantum optics” work deals with single photons and ions, the basic units of light and matter.
It could lead to advanced modes of communication and computation.
The Nobel citation said the award was for “ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”.
Light and matter, when the minuscule scales of single particles are reached, behave in surprising ways in a part of physics known as quantum mechanics.
Working with light and matter on this level would have been unthinkable before the pair developed solutions to pick, manipulate and measure photons and ions individually, allowing an insight into a microscopic world that was once just the province of scientific theory.
Their work has implications for light-based clocks far more precise than the atomic clocks at the heart of the world’s business systems, and quantum computing, which may – or may not – revolutionize desktop computing as we know it.
Serge Haroche and David Wineland share 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics
But for physicists, the import of the pair’s techniques is that they preserve the delicate quantum mechanical states of the photons and ions – states that theorists had for decades hoped to measure in the laboratory, putting the ideas of quantum mechanics on a solid experimental footing.
Those include the slippery quantum mechanical ideas of “entanglement” – the seemingly ethereal connection between two distant particles that underpins much work on the “uncrackable codes” of quantum cryptography – and of “decoherence”, in which the quantum nature of a particle slowly slips away through its interactions with other matter.
The prize is the second in quantum optics in recent years; the theory behind decoherence formed part of 2005’s Nobel physics prize citation.
Prof. Serge Haroche was reached by phone from the press conference. He had been told he had won just 20 minutes before telling reporters: “I was lucky – I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately.
“I was walking with my wife going back home and when I saw the… Swedish code, I realized it was real and it’s, you know, really overwhelming.”
The Nobel prizes have been given out annually since 1901, covering the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
The first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Wilhelm Roentgen of Germany for his discovery of X-rays, and with this year’s winners the total number of recipients has reached 194.
On Monday, the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan for changing adult cells into stem cells, which can become any other type of cell in the body.
This year’s chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, with the literature and peace prizes to be awarded later in the week.