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Spies are keen on quantum computing, claims Washington Post

By Hamish Johnston

An article in the Washington Post claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is funding research into how quantum computers could be used to crack cryptography systems. While the article claims to be based on leaked secret documents, the revelation doesn’t seem to surprise several of the physicists quoted in the piece.

Scott Aaronson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says that it’s unlikely that the NSA project is much further ahead of public quantum-computing research. His MIT colleague Seth Lloyd adds that it could be five years or more before the NSA or anyone else creates a quantum computer capable of breaking cryptographic systems.

Interestingly, Lloyd alludes to a space-race-like rivalry between the US, EU and Switzerland that is driving the development of code-busting quantum computers.

Conventional cryptography systems are used to protect vast amounts of financial, medical and other information that is exchanged over the Internet. Cracking these systems involves the brute-force factoring of very large numbers. While standard computers can take an eternity to do this, quantum computers should be able to complete the task in a reasonable amount of time.

But don’t think that quantum systems are all bad news for the keepers of secrets. There is one type of cryptography that cannot be cracked by any quantum computer: quantum cryptography.

Commercial quantum-cryptography systems already exist and as the technology improves it could provide the perfect foil to snoopers using quantum computers. There are, however, other ways of cracking quantum-cryptography systems and I’m sure the NSA and other spy agencies are busy developing these as well.

The Washington Post article is: “NSA seeks to build quantum computer that could crack most types of encryption“.

You can learn more about quantum computers in this podcast that I recorded with some of the leading lights in quantum computing:  “Quantum computing: challenges, triumphs and applications“.

There is much more about the first commercial quantum cryptography systems in the article “Key to the quantum industry” and last year I met a (very public) quantum hacker when visiting the University of Waterloo.

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  1. John Duffield

    Sigh. Edward Snowden, Washington Post, and the insufferable Scott Aaronson who savaged Joy Christian for daring to challenge quantum mysticism. Not very encouraging, is it? I think it’s worth while re-reading the NSA statement from September:

    “The stories published yesterday, however, reveal specific and classified details about how we conduct this critical intelligence activity. Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.”

  2. M. Asghar

    The spies are there to use all the means quantic or classic, available for their work: to know what the others have and their overall activity.

  3. Joe

    Just as quantum computing can be used to crack even some of the most sophisticated cryptographic systems, can it not be used to create even better ‘locks’ and ‘secure systems’ that cannot so easily be broken? Of course it can be done. The problem is – those having easy access to such solutions will have an upper hand in the game; at least until something new comes up!

  4. rajpal

    The assumption that a quantum switch can be ‘ON and OFF’ at the same time is based on an INCORRECT concept of Linear Polarization.

    The assumption that the an electron-spin qubit can be both spin-up and spin-down at the same time is based on an INCORRECT concept of “What is Electron Spin?”

  5. Trackback: Spies are keen on quantum computing, claims Washington Post - Black Ops


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