NSA seeks to build supercomputer to compromise web encryption

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An excerpt from a document provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Washington Post.

An excerpt from a document provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Washington Post.

The National Security Agency has secured a multi-million dollar research fund that, in part, pays for the development of what would be a massive supercomputer capable of breaking nearly every kind of encryption protocol used to secure online communications.

The project was made public by the Washington Post on Thursday, which based its report on documents provided by former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The documents show the NSA wants to build what the Post is calling a “cryptological useful quantum computer” — a supercomputer capable of performing a massive amount of calculations with the goal of compromising the encryption standards used in online banking, shopping, email, instant messaging and elsewhere.

Many scientific communities and government agencies have focused on the development of such computer, and experts quoted by the Post doubt the NSA’s efforts are ahead of any other group.

“It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anyone knowing it, ” electrical engineering professor Scott Aaronson told the Post.

A quantum computer would, in theory, take a short amount of time to decrypt complex mathematical equations that are used to encrypt content sent over the internet. A high-end consumer computer would take years to “break” encryption standards like RSA (the standard used to secure a connection when someone shops online, among other things), but a quantum computer would, in theory, be able to decrypt content in a relatively short amount of time.

The vast amount of technical resources needed to make a quantum computer work have some doubting that such a product would ever be useful to the NSA. Still, the agency has committed $79.7 million into the project it calls “Penetrating Hard Targets.”

Another project, “Owning the Web,” is “using quantum research to support the creation of quantum-based attacks on encryptions like the RSA,” the Post reported.

Washington Post: Read an excerpt from the NSA document “Penetrating Hard Targets”