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

Cleveland police
Show Hide image

Should Facebook face the heat for the Cleveland shooting video?

On Easter Sunday, a man now dubbed the “Facebook killer” shot and killed a grandfather before uploading footage of the murder to the social network. 

A murder suspect has committed suicide after he shot dead a grandfather seemingly at random last Sunday. Steve Stephens (pictured above), 37, was being hunted by police after he was suspected of killing Robert Godwin, 74, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The story has made international headlines not because of the murder in itself – in America, there are 12,000 gun homicides a year – but because a video of the shooting was uploaded to Facebook by the suspected killer, along with, moments later, a live-streamed confession.

After it emerged that Facebook took two hours to remove the footage of the shooting, the social network has come under fire and has promised to “do better” to make the site a “safe environment”. The site has launched a review of how it deals with violent content.

It’s hard to poke holes in Facebook’s official response – written by Justin Osofsky, its vice president of global operations – which at once acknowledges how difficult it would have been to do more, whilst simultaneously promising to do more anyway. In a timeline of events, Osofsky notes that the shooting video was not reported to Facebook until one hour and 45 minutes after it had been uploaded. A further 23 minutes after this, the suspect’s profile was disabled and the videos were no longer visible.

Despite this, the site has been condemned by many, with Reuters calling its response “bungled” and the two-hour response time prompting multiple headlines. Yet solutions are not as readily offered. Currently, the social network largely relies on its users to report offensive content, which is reviewed and removed by a team of humans – at present, artificial intelligence only generates around a third of reports that reach this team. The network is constantly working on implementing new algorithms and artificially intelligent solutions that can uphold its community standards, but at present there is simply no existing AI that can comb through Facebook’s one billion active users to immediately identify and remove a video of a murder.

The only solution, then, would be for Facebook to watch every second of every video – 100 million hours of which are watched every day on the site – before it goes live, a task daunting not only for its team, but for anyone concerned about global censorship. Of course Facebook should act as quickly as possible to remove harmful content (and of course Facebook shouldn’t call murder videos “content” in the first place) but does the site really deserve this much blame for the Cleveland killer?

To remove the blame from Facebook is not to deny that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to watch an auto-playing video of a murder. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that the act, as well as the name “Facebook killer” itself, could arguably inspire copycats. But we have to acknowledge the limits on what technology can do. Even if Facebook removed the video in three seconds, it is apparent that for thousands of users, the first impulse is to download and re-upload upsetting content rather than report it. This is evident in the fact that the victim’s grandson, Ryan, took to a different social network – Twitter – to ask people to stop sharing the video. It took nearly two hours for anyone to report the video to Facebook - it took seconds for people to download a copy for themselves and share it on.  

When we ignore these realities and beg Facebook to act, we embolden the moral crusade of surveillance. The UK government has a pattern of using tragedy to justify invasions into our privacy and security, most recently when home secretary Amber Rudd suggested that Whatsapp should remove its encryption after it emerged the Westminster attacker used the service. We cannot at once bemoan Facebook’s power in the world and simultaneously beg it to take total control. When you ask Facebook to review all of the content of all of its billions of users, you are asking for a God.

This is particularly undesirable in light of the good that shocking Facebook videos can do – however gruesome. Invaluable evidence is often provided in these clips, be they filmed by criminals themselves or their victims. When Philando Castile’s girlfriend Facebook live-streamed the aftermath of his shooting by a police officer during a traffic stop, it shed international light on police brutality in America and aided the charging of the officer in question. This clip would never have been seen if Facebook had total control of the videos uploaded to its site.  

We need to stop blaming Facebook for things it can’t yet change, when we should focus on things it can. In 2016, the site was criticised for: allowing racial discrimination via its targeted advertising; invading privacy with its facial-scanning; banning breast cancer-awareness videos; avoiding billions of dollars in tax; and tracking non-users activity across the web. Facebook should be under scrutiny for its repeated violations of its users’ privacy, not for hosting violent content – a criticism that will just give the site an excuse to violate people's privacy even further.

No one blames cars for the recent spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Europe, and no one should blame Facebook for the Cleveland killer. Ultimately, we should accept that the social network is just a vehicle. The one to blame is the person driving.

If you have accidentally viewed upsetting and/or violent footage on social media that has affected you, call the Samaritans helpline on  116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

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

0800 7318496