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NSA explores quantum computer for privacy cracking

Snowden documents reveal data decryption programme

NSA explores quantum computer for privacy cracking
A quantum computer could theoretically carry out millions of operations simultaneously and complete a decryption task in seconds or minutes.

The US National Security Agency is exploring development of a quantum computer that would effortlessly break most encryption methods, online media reported.

The reports, which all cite an article by the Washington Post based on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, follow last week's US federal ruling that the NSA's collection of phone records is lawful. The case is now expected to be presented to the US Supreme Court.

A quantum computer uses the properties of subatomic particles to assume the role of bits, which are referred to as "qubits". The ability of qubits to assume multiple states simultaneously, leads to an architecture that is theoretically many times more powerful than transistor-based systems. Many computing scientists believe a practical quantum computer, which would need to be in the dozens-of-qubits range, is still years away, while others, such as quantum-computing specialist D-Wave Systems, claim a working model is imminent.

Recent breakthroughs in the field have yielded prototypes designed for limited applications, but a number of these have involved encryption. The cyclical nature of encryption-breaking means a conventional computer, which can only carry out tasks sequentially, could take hours or days (depending on encryption strength) to complete its task, but a quantum computer could theoretically carry out millions of operations simultaneously and complete the same crack in seconds or minutes.

The NSA's quantum computing research is part of a $79.7m programme named "Penetrating Hard Targets", but the Post's report does not reveal how successful the research has been.

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