It's reportedly far from finished, but remains a concern

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is now well-known for its far-reaching spying capabilities thanks to former agency contractor Edward Snowden, and new documents prove the NSA's commitment to surveillance more than ever with the construction of a quantum computer.

According to The Washington Post, the NSA is in the midst of building a quantum computer capable of breaking into most types of encryption. The computer is part of a $79.7 million research program called “Penetrating Hard Targets.”

Quantum computers are different from traditional computers that we use everyday in that quantum versions use quantum bits (aka "qubits") that simultaneously use zero and one. Traditional computers use binary bits, where either zero or one is used, but never at the same time. Traditional computers calculate one task at a time, where quantum computers are capable of skipping certain calculations in order to solve a problem, meaning it can reach conclusions faster. 

For the NSA's purposes, a quantum computer would be able to crack an encryption key much more quickly than traditional computers. The standard encryption tool today is called RSA, where the product of two large prime numbers need to be factored. Finding these two numbers cracks the key, and in 2009, it took hundreds of traditional computers nearly two years to crack a 768-bit number. Typically, 1024-bit encryption keys are used for online banking, medical, government and business records, which could take 1,000 times longer to crack. 

This is where quantum computers come in. They would be able to figure out encryption codes much faster, allowing the NSA access to any information they'd like. Further, the NSA is building the quantum computer in a faraday cage, which prevents electromagnetic energy from coming in or out. 

But the article says that the NSA isn't exactly close to having the quantum computer built. The main issue with these types of computers is that they're fragile, and they need to be kept isolated from outside environments -- or else their computations are useless. 

It's also difficult to build a quantum computer with enough qubits. The report noted that the NSA would need hundreds or even thousands more qubits than it currently has to have a working quantum computer. 


Sources in The Washington Post article noted that the NSA can't possibly be much further ahead than civilian computer labs in universities around the U.S., which have already built small-scale quantum computers. 

Snowden blew the cover on the NSA's surveillance programs earlier last year, which consisted of bulk data collection from sources like phone records, where the government took on a "collect now, filter later" approach. The agency has said that the bulk data collection was meant to identify terrorist threats, but it's been discovered that the data of Americans has been collected without any clear evidence of terrorist links. 

A presidential review panel made 46 recommendations regarding greater restraint on the NSA's surveillance programs last week, which will have to be accepted by President Barack Obama and U.S. Congress before being put into practice. 
One of the major recommendations involves the elimination of bulk collection of phone call records (known as "metadata"). The NSA said it collected metadata in bulk and filtered through it afterward in an attempt to make connections when searching for terrorist threats.
Snowden recently burned the NSA further in a document which proved that the NSA misled about collecting anything other than metadata via bulk warrants from secret courts. It was also discovered that the NSA can hack any American, and stores metadata that it collects for 15 years

Source: The Washington Post

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