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The NSA's Quantum Code-Breaking Research Is No Secret
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The NSA's Quantum Code-Breaking Research Is No Secret

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The NSA's Quantum Code-Breaking Research Is No Secret
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The National Security Agency is pursuing a new kind of computer that could crack almost any code, codes like the ones that protect email and bank accounts and medical records, that revelation today courtesy of leaker Edward Snowden. The documents were published in the Washington Post.

As NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel reports, this code-cracking project is still in its infancy.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: So the world's most clandestine spy agency is building something called a quantum computer. It's based on rules Einstein himself described as spooky. That's got to be top-secret stuff, right? Guess again.

CHRISTOPHER MONROE: It's all in the open.

BRUMFIEL: That's Christopher Monroe, a physicist at the University of Maryland who studies quantum computing. He's not surprised the NSA is involved.

MONROE: They have funded, through various ways, my own research.

BRUMFIEL: Really? Are you allowed to say that?

MONROE: Yeah, I believe so.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUMFIEL: In fact the NSA funds a lot of unclassified basic research in this area, and here's why it's interested: Most of the world's computers encrypt their data using really large numbers. To break the code, spy agencies have to divide the numbers by other numbers, prime numbers. Finding the right prime numbers can take awhile.

MONROE: A thousand-digit number might take a full year of a team of supercomputers. And again, all you have to do is add another digit, it gets twice as hard. You can add another hundred digits, and forget it, you won't be able to ever do it.

BRUMFIEL: That's where a quantum computer comes in. Rather than just trying one number at a time, it can try all the numbers.

MONROE: It can look at them all at the same time and there's a huge speed up by doing that.

BRUMFIEL: A code that was impossible to break could be cracked in weeks, days, maybe even hours. And that's why the NSA needs to be working on quantum computers.

MONROE: If you think about it, it would be worrisome if they would not pay attention to this field because it could shake them to their roots. If somebody comes up with a quantum computer, and they're not prepared for it, that would not be good for this country.

BRUMFIEL: But if you're worried the NSA might soon be snooping with a quantum computer, don't. They're really hard to build.

MONROE: The technology is way behind anything that could be useful at this point.

BRUMFIEL: The documents leak today seemed to indicate the agency hasn't made much more progress than researchers like Monroe, and as another researcher pointed out to me, the NSA already has plenty of secret tricks and legal tools for reading the world's emails. Who needs a quantum computer when you've got a court order? Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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