What could the NSA do with a quantum computer?

After many false starts it’s a research field that is just now coming of age - when harnessed, particles can perform staggeringly powerful computation.

The news that the US National Security Agency has been spying on public emails, phone calls and internet chat logs provokes an obvious question: just how much data can the NSA cope with? That depends on whether it has a working quantum computer.

A report leaked to the Guardian suggests that the NSA can get three billion pieces of information a month from computer records alone. Much has been made of how it would take ridiculous amounts of computer time to analyse it all. But that is exactly why the NSA, GCHQ and almost every other security agency in the world have spent the past two decades with one eye on a select group of physicists who could soon make the supercomputers of today look like children’s toys.

A standard “classical” computer stores information as a series of zeroes and ones on the microchips of its circuitry. A 0 is represented by the absence of electrical charge on a component called a capacitor. The presence of charges gives a 1. By moving the charges around between components in welldefined ways, you can represent any number you want and perform any computation.

The quantum computer uses a single atom or electron, rather than a bulky electrical charge, as the 0 or 1. In fact, the particle can be 0 and 1 at the same time. In certain conditions, atoms and subatomic particles can be in two places at once, or spin clockwise and anticlockwise at the same time. That means you can use a single atom to represent two binary digits.

Then there’s entanglement, another phenomenon of the subatomic world. This allows you to link many of the doubleheaded particles to create a string of binary digits that can simultaneously represent a huge array of numbers. A string of just 250 particles is enough to encode, simultaneously, more numbers than there are atoms in the known universe. Put those particles together in the form of a computer, and they can perform a staggeringly powerful computation on all these possible numbers at once.

So far, researchers have identified two applications for quantum computing. The first is a kind of reverse multiplication known as factorisation. This allows you to discover which numbers multiply each other to create any given number. It sounds trivial, but if the bigger number is big enough, no normal computer can do this in a reasonable time. The difficulty of factorisation is the mainstay of all data security, from military intelligence to financial transactions. So, a quantum computer is a game-changer.

The second application seems even more esoteric at first glance. It is a reverse telephonebook search: given a number, it can do the equivalent of finding a name, and much more quickly than any machine we have now. It is a way of sifting through unsorted data efficiently – just what the NSA needs.

And after many false starts it’s a research field that is just now coming of age. The first working, commercial quantum computer was created by DWave Systems, a firm based in Vancouver, Canada. Its first sale, in May 2011, was to the defence company Lockheed Martin, which has links with the NSA.

A major investor in D-Wave is In-Q-Tel, the business arm of the CIA, which “delivers innovative technology solutions in support of the missions of the US intelligence community”. IQT believes its customers can benefit from the promise of quantum computing because the intelligence world faces “many complex problems that tax classical computing”, according to Robert Ames, an IQT vice-president. He made that statement in September last year. Now we know just what he meant.

A new NSA data centre in Bluffdale, Utah. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Pupils need internet classes? Here are 41 lessons they should learn

Forget privacy and security, here's what to do when a black and blue dress looks white and gold. 

It is imperative that children are taught how to survive and thrive on the internet, claims a new House of Lords report. According to the Lords Communication Committee, pupils need to learn how to stay safe, avoid addictive games, and become “digitally literate”.

It’s hard to argue with the report, which is a great step forward in acknowledging that the internet now basically = life. Yet although it is crucial that children learn how to stay private and secure online, there are also some equally crucial and not-at-all-flippant pieces of information that the youth urgently need to know. Here are the first 41 lessons in that curriculum.

  1. To figure out how much to donate towards your mate’s charity half-marathon, half X OR double Y, where X is the amount paid by their mum and Y is the amount donated by your closest rival, Becky
  2. Don’t mention that it’s snowing
  3. If – for some reason – you talk about bombs in a Facebook message, follow this up with “Hi Theresa May” in case Theresa May is looking, and then Theresa May will think you are just joking
  4. If you are on a train and you are annoyed about the train, do not tweet @ the social media manager who runs the account for the train, because they are not, in fact, the train
  5. If a Facebook meme starts “Only 10 per cent of people can get this puzzle right” – know that lies are its captain
  6. It’s not pronounced me-me
  7. Never say me-me nor meem, for they should not be discussed out loud
  8. People can tell if you’ve watched their Instagram stories
  9. People can’t tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos
  10. People can tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos if you accidentally Like one – in this circumstance, burn yourself alive
  11. Jet fuel can melt steel beams
  12. If a dog-walking photo is taken in the woods and no one uploads it; did it even happen?
  13. Google it before you share it
  14. Know that Khloe Kardashian does not look that way because of a FitTea wrap
  15. Do not seek solace in #MondayMotivation – it is a desolate place
  16. Respect JK Rowling
  17. Please read an article before you comment about a point that the article specifically rebutted in great detail in order to prepare for such comments that alas, inevitably came
  18. Don’t be racist, ok?
  19. Never, under any circumstances, wade into the Facebook comment section under an article about Jeremy Corbyn
  20.  If a dress looks white and gold to some people and black and blue to some others, please just go outside
  21. Open 200 tabs until you are crippled with anxiety. Close none of the tabs
  22. Despite the fact it should make you cringe, “smol puppers” is the purest evolution of language. Respect that
  23. Take selfies, no matter what anyone says
  24. Watch Zoella ironically until the lines of irony blur and you realise that the 20 minutes you immerse yourself into her rose-gold life are the only minutes of peace in your agonising day but also, what’s wrong with her pug? I hope her pug is ok
  25. Nazi Furries are a thing. Avoid
  26. Use Facebook’s birthday reminder to remember that people exist and delete them from your Friends list
  27. When a person you deleted from your Friends list inexplicably comes up to you IRL and says “Why?” pretend that your little cousin Jeff got into your account
  28. Don’t let your little cousin Jeff into your account
  29. “Like” the fact your friend got engaged even if you don’t actually like the fact she is reminding you of the gradual ebbing away of your youth
  30. No one cares about your political opinion and if they act like they do then I regret to inform you, they want to have sex with you
  31. Please don’t leave a banterous comment on your local Nando’s Facebook page, for it is not 2009
  32. Accept that the viral Gods choose you, you do not choose them
  33. Joke about your mental health via a relatable meme that is actually an agonising scream into the void
  34. Share texts from your mum and mock them with internet strangers because even though she pushed you out of her vagina and gave up her entire life to help you thrive as a person, she can’t correctly use emojis
  35. Follow DJ Khaled
  36. Decide that “Best wishes” is too blah and “Sincerely” is too formal and instead sign off your important email with “Happy bonfire night”” even though that is not a thing people say
  37. If someone from primary school adds you as Friend in 15 years, accept them but never speak again
  38. The mute button is God’s greatest gift
  39. Do not tell me a clown will kill me after midnight if I don’t like your comment because that is not a promise you can keep
  40. Don’t steal photos of other people’s pets
  41. Accept that incorrect "your"s and "you’re"s are not going anywhere and save yourself the time 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.