NSA Building Code-Breaking Quantum SupercomputerS

According to a report in the Washington Post based on Edward Snowden-provided documents, the NSA is working to build a quantum computer that would be capable of cracking nearly every type of encrypted code in the world, including files for banks, medical facilities, and governments.

The "cryptologically useful quantum computer" is being developed in room-sized metal cages in a facility in Maryland as part of a program appropriately titled "Penetrate Hard Targets." While Quantum computers are years from completion, the NSA reportedly considers its program on pace with publicly-known projects sponsored by Switzerland and the European Union.

"The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland," one NSA document states, according to the Post.

Basically, quantum computers are much faster than traditional computers—and powerful enough, in theory, to crack the world's most complex encryption tools—but they are also much more fragile. From the Washington Post:

Quantum computing is difficult to attain because of the fragile nature of such computers. In theory, the building blocks of such a computer might include individual atoms, photons or electrons. To maintain the quantum nature of the computer, these particles would need to be carefully isolated from their external environments.

Why would the NSA want such a powerful computer? To spy on other countries before they spy on us, according to the NSA. "The application of quantum technologies to encryption algorithms threatens to dramatically impact the US government's ability to both protect its communications and eavesdrop on the communications of foreign governments," one of the documents states.

But no need to worry quite yet: The NSA is likely years away from fully developing the computer.

"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," Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering, told the Washington Post.

[Image via AP]