NSA “Hard Target” project planned $80m quantum “God Machine” to ‘own’ the Internet

A hi-tech ‘quantum computer’ more powerful than any supercomputer on Earth, and capable of breaking virtually any encryption code, including those used to protect banking systems – and thus ‘owning the net’ has been planned by the National Security Agency. Details of the project are the latest of a series of  revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Documents provided to the Washington Post showed that a secret project, entitled OTN (Owning the Net) had a budget of $79.7 million to develop the machine.

Quantum computers, which exploit properties of subatomic particles are in their infancy – but have been described as “God Machines” and the “Holy Grail” of computing, due to their ability to develop new drugs at speed, according to Yahoo News. The NSA aimed to exploit this power for high-speed code breaking, the documents said, “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,” said the documents leaked by Snowden, according to The Register.

The physics behind the theoretical machine have been known for 100 years, and the idea of using such machines for code-breaking has been known for decades, but the NSA was pushing to leapfrog ahead of companies such as IBM, to build a machine exponentially more powerful than current “classical” computers, and spell the end of the silicon era, albeit for rather different reasons than IBM, according to The Register’s report.

For security professionals, and computer experts, quantum computers have been a “Holy Grail” for decades – using the strange properties of quantum physics – where instead of ‘bits’, where information is conveyed in ones and zeroes – quantum particles can be both at once – to calculate at speeds impossible for current machines based on transistors, according to Yahoo News.

Tech Week Europe said that the documents referred to the development of “a cryptologically useful quantum computer”, exponentially faster than current machines, and part of a project entitles “Penetrating Hard Targets”.

The revelation has puzzled some computer experts, as the capabilities of the proposed machine would be far beyond anything yet unveiled, even by pioneers such as IBM (whose early quantum computer is pictured above)  While both Google and defense contractor Lockheed Martin invested in D-Wave’s ‘quantum computer’, argument raged over whether the machine really was different from “classical” computers, according to Wired. D-Wave’s machines can peforrm high-speed computing tasks – but not the one that the NSA want, high speed decryption.

“The idea of quantum computing was proposed in the 1980s by physicists like Richard Feynman,” said Scott Aaronson, talking to the Washington Post, “But it wasn’t obvious that a quantum computer would be good for anything.  The big discovery that sort of got people excited about this field: Peter Shor discovered in 1994 that you could use it to find the prime factors of enormous numbers. That’s a practical problem we don’t know how to solve with [conventional] computers in any reasonable amount of time. The security of e-commerce is based on the difficulty of finding prime factors. If you can do that you can break most of the cryptography on the Internet.”

“The Owning the Net (OTN) Project provides the technological means for NSA/CSS to gain access to and securely return high value target communications,” the documents leaked by Snowden said.

“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.”

So far, the computers under test at IBM, Lockheed Martin and Google, and universities around the world, work with just a few “qubits” – the tiny particles that can be both one and zero at once, says science author Colin Stuart, author of The Big Questions in Science, speaking to Yahoo News.

A 250-qubit array would contain more ‘bits’ of information than there are atoms in the entire universe, IBM has claimed, and will happen within our lifetimes  - allowing not just for high-speed code-breaking but for useful tasks such as the high-speed development of new drugs, according to Stuart. The machines could “save millions,” he says.

“A quantum computer could calculate in seconds what a supercomputer – even the fastest on Earth – would take years to,”  says Stuart. “The strangest thing is that it’s quite possible that one of the reasons they’re so fast is that they’re doing the calculations in multiple universes.”

The Register points out that while the NSA is keen on the idea, it seems to be far from being in possession of a working quantum decrypter, saying, “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. There’s no mention of anything like a working quantum decrypter.”

 

Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security

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