The US National Security Agency is trying to develop a computer that could ultimately break most encryption programs, according to reports.
A report by the Washington Post based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said the agency is trying to develop a quantum computer – a computer that exploits the rules of quantum mechanics – that could be used to break encryption codes used to cloak sensitive information whether used to protect other nations' spying programs or consumers' bank accounts.
Such a computer could take advantage of quantum-mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform several calculations at once instead of in a single stream, but could take years to develop.
In addition to being able to break through the cloaks meant to protect private data, such a computer would have implications for such fields as medicine, the newspaper reported.
The research is part of a $79.7m research program called "Penetrating Hard Targets," the newspaper said. Other, non-governmental researchers are also trying to develop quantum computers, and it is not clear whether the NSA program lags the private efforts or is ahead of them.
Snowden, living in Russia with temporary asylum, last year leaked documents he collected while working for the NSA. The United States has charged him with espionage, and more charges could follow.
His disclosures have sparked a debate over how much leeway to give the U.S. government in gathering information to protect Americans from terrorism, and have prompted numerous lawsuits.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the NSA's collection of phone call records is lawful, while another judge earlier in December questioned the program's constitutionality. The issue is now more likely to move before the US Supreme Court.