WASHINGTON — In room-size metal boxes, secure against electromagnetic leaks, the National Security Agency is racing to build a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world.
According to documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the effort to build "a cryptologically useful quantum computer" — a machine exponentially faster than classical computers — is part of a $79.7 million research program titled "Penetrating Hard Targets."
Much of the work is hosted under classified contracts at a laboratory in College Park, Md.
The development of a quantum computer has long been a goal of many in the scientific community, with revolutionary implications for fields like medicine as well as for the NSA's code-breaking mission.
With such new technology, all forms of public key encryption would be broken, including those used on many secure websites as well as the type used to protect state secrets.
Physicists and computer scientists have long speculated whether the NSA's efforts are more advanced than those of the best civilian labs.
Although the full extent of the agency's research remains unknown, the documents provided by Snowden suggest the NSA is no closer to success than others in the scientific community.
"It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it," said Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The NSA appears to regard itself as running neck and neck with quantum computing labs sponsored by the European Union and the Swiss government, with steady progress but little prospect of an immediate breakthrough.
The NSA declined to comment for this report.