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Snowden docs: NSA building encryption-cracking quantum computer

Is anyone honestly surprised spy guys want to 'own the net?'

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The latest document stash from whistle-blower Edward Snowden shows that the NSA has budgeted $79.7m for the development of a quantum computer capable of "owning the net."

"The Owning the Net (OTN) Project provides the technological means for NSA/CSS to gain access to and securely return high value target communications," one document provided to the Washington Post states.

"By concentrating on the means of communication, the network itself, and network links rather than end systems, OTN research manipulates equipment hardware and software to control an adversary's network. Research is conducted at the Laboratory for Telecommunications Sciences in College Park, MD, and supports the evolving NSA/CSS internal information infrastructure and the larger IC."

The goal behind this effort is to build a system that has been discussed for decades: a computer capable of carrying out the massive amount of processing needed to break traditional encryption systems. Unsurprisingly, this is just the kind of thing the NSA wants.

"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.

The documents note that while the US had been leading in research into quantum computing, other nations are catching up. The EU and Switzerland are both mentioned as competitors that have new caught up with the current rate of quantum computing developments.

That's a bit of a poke in the eye for the Canadian company that is already selling quantum computing systems to Google and NASA: D-Wave Systems. D-Wave acknowledges that they are not selling fully functioning quantum computers capable of decryption, but president Vern Brownell told The Register that the firm was able to perform quantum-speed calculations for a variety of computing tasks.

The (in)famous Shor's algorithm, originally posited in 1994 as a method of using quantum factorization, would be able to break most modern encryption systems. Shor is "a friend of ours," Brownell told us, but added that the company wasn't looking into decryption.

"Folks say to us 'you can't do Shor's algorithm,' but we don't want to do Shor's algorithm," Brownell said. "You can't build a business around decrypting."

The NSA certainly does want to do this, but based on the Snowden documents the agency is a long way from being able to manage it. The millions in research funding mentioned is being used to try and see if a Shor-based system can be built, and there's no mention of anything like a working quantum decrypter. ®

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