Despite just being ruled unconstitutional, and despite Rand Paul’s class action lawsuit along with millions of Americans against Obama, the NSA is just plowing ahead with plans for the mother of all computers. There is no encryption key anywhere the NSA would not be able to hack. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside doesn’t it? Is there any laws Obama will follow? He just had ELEVEN ATTORNEY GENERALS write about their concern for his utter disregard for the law with respect to his own signature Obamacare.
Aren’t there movies about computers becoming all too powerful, and things that happen when they do? Hmmmm. Doesn’t one have a really “positive” sounding name to it? Ah, yes, The Terminator. That’s it. You may laugh now, but remember what people thought when George Orwell write 1984, and we’re WAY passed that now. The truth is, we’re not too far from the Terminator story line right now. The U.S. already has Autonomous Robots that can determine your fate. See the video.
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I wouldn’t laugh too hard.
Besides, they’ll hear you and you might make them angry.
The development of a quantum computer has long been a goal of many in the scientific community, with revolutionary implications for fields such as medicine as well as for the NSA’s code-breaking mission. With such technology, all current forms of public key encryption would be broken, including those used on many secure Web sites as well as the type used to protect state secrets.
Physicists and computer scientists have long speculated about whether the NSA’s efforts are more advanced than those of the best civilian labs. Although the full extent of the agency’s research remains unknown, the documents provided by Snowden suggest that the NSA is no closer to success than others in the scientific community.
“It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it,” said Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The NSA appears to regard itself as running neck and neck with quantum computing labs sponsored by the European Union and the Swiss government, with steady progress but little prospect of an immediate breakthrough.
“The geographic scope has narrowed from a global effort to a discrete focus on the European Union and Switzerland,” one NSA document states.
Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering, said the NSA’s focus is not misplaced. “The E.U. and Switzerland have made significant advances over the last decade and have caught up to the U.S. in quantum computing technology,” he said.
The NSA declined to comment for this article.
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The documents, however, indicate that the agency carries out some of its research in large, shielded rooms known as Faraday cages, which are designed to prevent electromagnetic energy from coming in or out. Those, according to one brief description, are required “to keep delicate quantum computing experiments running.”
The basic principle underlying quantum computing is known as “quantum superposition,” the idea that an object simultaneously exists in all states. A classical computer uses binary bits, which are either zeroes or ones. A quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which are simultaneously zero and one.
This seeming impossibility is part of the mystery that lies at the heart of quantum theory, which even theoretical physicists say no one completely understands.
“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics,” said the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who is widely regarded as the pioneer in quantum computing.
Here’s how it works, in theory: While a classical computer, however fast, must do one calculation at a time, a quantum computer can sometimes avoid having to make calculations that are unnecessary to solving a problem. That allows it to home in on the correct answer much more quickly and efficiently.
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.
“Quantum computers are extremely delicate, so if you don’t protect them from their environment, then the computation will be useless,” said Daniel Lidar, a professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California.
A working quantum computer would open the door to easily breaking the strongest encryption tools in use today, including a standard known as RSA, named for the initials of its creators. RSA scrambles communications, making them unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient, without requiring the use of a shared password. It is commonly used in Web browsers to secure financial transactions and in encrypted e-mails. RSA is used because of the difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers. Breaking the encryption involves finding those two numbers. This cannot be done in a reasonable amount of time on a classical computer.
In 2009, computer scientists using classical methods were able to discover the primeswithin a 768-bit number, but it took almost two years and hundreds of computers to factor it. The scientists estimated that it would take 1,000 times longer to break a 1,024-bit encryption key, which is commonly used for online transactions.
A large-scale quantum computer, however, could theoretically break a 1,024-bit encryption much faster. Some leading Internet companies are moving to 2,048-bit keys, but even those are thought to be vulnerable to rapid decryption with a quantum computer.
Quantum computers have many applications for today’s scientific community, including the creation of artificial intelligence. But the NSA fears the implications for national security.
“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,” according to an internal document provided by Snowden.
Experts are not sure how soon a quantum computer would be feasible. A decade ago, some experts said that developing a large quantum computer was likely 10 to 100 years in the future. Five years ago, Lloyd said the goal was at least 10 years away.
Last year, Jeff Forshaw, a professor at the University of Manchester, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “It is probably too soon to speculate on when the first full-scale quantum computer will be built but recent progress indicates that there is every reason to be optimistic.”
“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,” Lloyd told The Washington Post in a recent interview.
Some companies, however, claim to already be producing small quantum computers. A Canadian firm, D-Wave Systems , says it has been making quantum computers since 2009. In 2012, it sold a $10 million version to Google, NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, according to news reports.
That quantum computer, however, would never be useful for breaking public key encryption like RSA.
“Even if everything they’re claiming is correct, that computer, by its design, cannot run Shor’s algorithm,” said Matthew Green, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, referring to the algorithm that could be used to break encryption like RSA.
Experts think that one of the largest hurdles to breaking encryption with a quantum computer is building a computer with enough qubits, which is difficult given the very fragile state of quantum computers. By the end of September, the NSA expected to be able to have some building blocks, which it described in a document as “dynamical decoupling and complete quantum control on two semiconductor qubits.”
“That’s a great step, but it’s a pretty small step on the road to building a large-scale quantum computer,” Lloyd said.
A quantum computer capable of breaking cryptography would need hundreds or thousands more qubits than that.
The budget for the National Intelligence Program, commonly referred to as the “black budget,” details the “Penetrating Hard Targets” project and noted that this step “will enable initial scaling towards large systems in related and follow-on efforts.”
Another project, called “Owning the Net,” is using quantum research to support the creation of quantum-based attacks on encryptions like RSA, documents show.
“The irony of quantum computing is that if you can imagine someone building a quantum computer that can break encryption a few decades into the future, then you need to be worried right now,” Lidar said.
The U.S. National Security Agency is attempting to build a new breed of supercomputer that theoretically could make short work of cracking most keys used for encrypted communications.
The project to build “a cryptographically useful quantum computer” is part of an $80 million research project called “Penetrating Hard Targets” that is taking place at a campus in College Park, Maryland, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper quoted documents it said were provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Since the early days of encryption, an important defense in the security of each system has been the amount of time it would take to attack and discover the encryption key. The longer the time required, the greater the motivation and financial investment needed to discover the key.
As computers have gotten more powerful, longer encryption keys that are harder to crack have been employed, so today keys of 256 bits or more are common, especially for sensitive information. Even with a powerful supercomputer, experts generally agree it would take many years to crack a single key of 256 bits or more.
Quantum computing turns all of that around.
Unlike traditional computing, which relies on single bits of information that represent either one or zero, a quantum computer employs quantum bits that hold the value of one and zero at the same time.
If you’re wondering how that’s possible, you’re not alone. Even the world’s leading quantum computing experts don’t totally understand how it works, but they are in agreement about what it means for encryption keys.
Because each quantum bit holds two values at the same time, a string of quantum bits can represent all numbers simultaneously. That means a future quantum computer could do many calculations in a single step, not one by one as today’s computers do. So, cracking an encryption key could become child’s play.
At least, that’s the theory.
Scientists are yet to get reliably operating quantum computers capable of doing complex mathematical calculations, but it appears the NSA program is aimed at doing just that.
Many universities and research labs around the world are investing millions of dollars in programs to make reliable quantum computers, and the technology is improving every year, but to date no one has reported a breakthrough that would make today’s encryption keys unsafe.
However, the prospect of a future quantum computer might be enough to worry some people today, if the data being encrypted is something that will still have value in a few years or a few decades.
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