The quantum race worries the NSA. “The impact of an adversary’s use of a quantum computer could be devastating to National Security Systems and our nation,” notes a question and answer document about this technology published this week by the US National Security Agency (NSA, for its acronym in English), the same one that starred in a major international scandal when its former analyst Edward Snowden revealed his pact with the main technology multinationals to spy on citizens, businessmen and political leaders from all over the world.
Quantum computing is one of the biggest challenges that engineers, mathematicians and physicists are trying to unravel today. If traditional computers work through bits, electrical or optical pulses that represent ones and zeros (on and off), a functional quantum computer would be based on quantum bits or qubits: subatomic particles with the ability to be in multiple states at the same time, so they can represent a large number of combinations of ones and zeros at the same time.
It is even more complicated than it sounds. For this reason, a good part of the scientific community believes that the effort and the billions that IBM, Google or Microsoft are investing in researching this technology will end up falling on deaf ears. Still, the vast majority assume that it is worth the try: using qubits, quantum computers could be much more effective than current supercomputers at offering multiple solutions to the same problem at the same time. This would be extremely useful for simulations, a basic tool in many current scientific investigations.
Chemistry, materials design or process optimization could be the first fields to benefit from quantum computing. However, at the same time that the countries and companies that investigate this technology have been achieving the necessary milestones to make it viable, fear of one of its potential uses has grown. A quantum computer would also be very effective in solving cryptographic problems, the cornerstone of today’s digital security. It might be able to attack any system and break it with computer brute force.
“National Security Systems – systems that carry classified military or intelligence information or otherwise – use cryptography as a critical component to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of national security information,” notes the NSA. “Without effective mitigation,” he warns, those systems would be at the mercy of any country or cybercriminal group with the ability to use quantum computing against them.
The NSA does not know when, or even if, there will be a quantum computer of sufficient size and power to breach cryptography
Today’s cryptography relies on using mathematics as a barrier of protection. A conventional computer could spend hundreds of years doing calculations to find the combination with which to penetrate this logical wall. In practice, this makes good encryption impenetrable with current methods. The risk is that quantum computers can perform these calculations much faster and cryptography is no longer a reliable protection.
The US spy agency acknowledges that “the NSA does not know when it will arrive, or even if there will be a quantum computer of sufficient size and power to violate cryptography.” Scientists believe that the first prototype could take decades. However, the NSA sees the mere possibility of the technology becoming a reality as a threat of the highest order. Although American multinationals have been relatively transparent with their discoveries and have published studies for analysis by the international scientific community, countries such as China, which is also investigating the potential of this technology, have lavished much less on the advances of their research.
Offensive quantum computing
The US agency document deals with quantum computing from a defensive perspective. The NSA is also in charge of developing computer protection protocols for US national security systems and already has a plan for a “post-quantum” situation in place. It ensures that it is already prepared to withstand a potential qubit-based attack.
But the NSA doesn’t just think of quantum computing as a threat, but also as a method of attack. Documents supplied by Snowden in 2014 revealed that the entity had invested $ 80 million in a program to create “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” with which to “crack most types of encryption,” he published at the time. Washington Post. It was not his only project in this regard, since the former analyst also provided information on another, called “Owning the net” (Dominating the network) intended to support the former.
Already then, several experts pointed out to the American newspaper that it was highly unlikely that the NSA could have concealed a relevant advance in quantum computing, even being an organization based on secrecy. “The irony of quantum computing is that if you can imagine that someone can build a quantum computer capable of cracking encryption within a few decades, then you have to start worrying right now,” warned one of them.