Why last week’s “news” of the NSA’s quantum computer project doesn’t bother me

Last week, another Snowden leak surfaced that stated that the NSA is working on a quantum computer capable of breaking all known current encryption, trivially.

I didn’t find this shocking. When I was studying for the CISSP, we touched on quantum computing briefly. Nobody had any proof that the NSA was working on building one, but we assumed they were, and so are other countries like Russia and China. Our professional responsibility is to assume that someday, someone hostile is going to have a quantum computer.

More recently, I’ve heard speculation that the NSA already had a quantum computer. Again, no proof–just suspicion. This leak will put an end to that speculation, I guess.

Let me explain what the NSA’s mission is. Its Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate (formerly the Defense Signals Directorate) has a motto: Reveal their secrets. Protect our own. That’s the NSA’s job too.

Think back to World War II. The Germans had a cryptography program, using a device called Enigma. Depending on who you believe, Poland either cracked Enigma or was very close to cracking it in 1939. The British picked up where Poland left off, cracked Enigma, and was able to intercept German communications. So the Allies knew what the Germans were going to do, but the Germans didn’t know the Allies knew, which gave the Allies an advantage.

Repeating that is the NSA’s mission: Crack the encryption that foreign governments are using, keep it secret that the encryption is cracked, and keep them from cracking U.S. ciphers to protect U.S. interests.

A quantum computer fits into that mission rather nicely. And I am very uncomfortable with the idea of China or Russia having one and the United States not having one.

The downside, of course, is the temptation to turn this weapon on U.S. citizens.

We’re not there yet. So I suppose it’s good that the dirty little secret of quantum computing is now known outside of the narrow niche of security professionals, so now the conversation can happen before the abuse can take place.

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