Quantum computing has had the attention of the US Government for over a decade, ever since the discovery that quantum computers could be used to break a widely used cypher. The cypher, called RSA, forms the cryptographic backbone of secure communication on the web. If you’ve ever typed a URL that started with https:// (the ‘s’ standing for secure), or seen that little padlock symbol in the corner of your browser, then you’ve almost certainly used this cypher. But RSA is used for more then just securing your credit card details when you buy a DVD on Amazon; it’s used by governments, financial institutions, corporations, activists, freedom fighters, and terrorist groups. And, for an intelligence gathering service like the NSA or CIA, it is presumably a huge thorn in their side.
Quantum computing is my area of research, and I have a little known organization in US Government to thank for the grant money that pays for my work in Oxford. (Well, both them and my supervisors here in Oxford who won the grant and recruited me.)
Amusingly, this organization has managed to shift through three different names since our grant started 3 years ago. It was originally called the Advanced Research Development Activity (ARDA).
Then, sometime between Oxford winning the grant and my arrival, the organization was renamed to the Disruptive Technology Office (DTO). This was easily my favorite of the three. By disruptive technology they presumably mean technologies which fundamentally change the way we do important things: in our case, the way people communicate on the internet. However, when ever I heard Disruptive Technology Office, all I could imagine is a nondescript brick building in DC somewhere. It’s nice and peaceful, unobtrusive on the outside, and there’s a pleasant receptionist in the atrium. Then you descend down an elevator, doors slide open and there is absolute bedlam: sirens blaring, flashing spinning lights, klaxon horns, and people throwing papers in the air, running around with their arms overhead screaming, “shiiit! shiiiiiit!”
I’m sure it’s nothing like that.
There was yet another restructuring, with the DTO being folded into a new organization called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). To my continuing amusement, they pronounce it like pirates: yarpa! The name is meant to conjure up ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, who brought you fun projects like the Internet. ARPA today is called DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is funded by the Dept. of Defence. IARPA is funded by, you guessed it, the Director of National Intelligence. Wired Magazine describes IARPA as “like DARPA, but for spies.”
I got a chance to go to an IARPA meeting, but sadly, “James Bond shit” (as it’s so marvelously put by Willem Dafoe in The Boondock Saints) was notably absent from the proceedings. It was a program review of their funding efforts in quantum computing, and the most respected scientists in our field being there gave me a good idea of how influential they are in pushing the development of quantum computing technology. But, as I said, there was no cloak and dagger—this was a meeting of scientists. All this funding is happening in the open, with no restrictions on publishing.
There’s no doubt that the US intelligence community would love to be able to develop quantum computing technology for its code-breaking abilities. Once it’s developed, whether or not they think they can keep it out of the hands of America’s adversaries is anyone’s guess. Assuming the NSA doesn’t already have a quantum computer, the state of cryptography appears to be heavily favoring the cypher-makers, rather than the cypher-breakers. Perhaps they think that quantum computers, even if we’re not the only ones to have them, might tilt the scales back in favor of intelligence gatherers.