A new breed of supercomputer is being built that could reportedly take the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance capabilities to the next level. Documents brought to light by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reveal that the agency is building “a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption used to protect banking, medical, business and government records around the world,” according to the Washington Post.

The Post reports that the “cryptologically useful quantum computer” is part of a US$79.7 million research program, “Penetrating Hard Targets,” that is taking place at a laboratory in College Park, Md.

A non-quantum computer needs data to be encoded into bits while a quantum computer uses quantum bits, called qubits. A bit represents either a one or a zero, and a qubit represents a one, a zero or both at the same time.

In theory, a quantum computer can avoid having to make unnecessary calculations to solve a problem, coming to the correct answer a lot faster, while a non-quantum computer can only make one calculation at a time.

Still, it may be some time before a quantum computer is possible. Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering, told the Post that it is unlikely that the type of computer the NSA wants can be built within five years.

One of the hardest obstacles the quantum computer faces is being able to hold enough qubits to break encryption, which would be very challenging based on the computer’s fragile nature.

“Quantum computers are extremely delicate, so if you don’t protect them from their environment, then the computation will be useless,” Daniel Lidar, a professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California, told the Post.
Documents indicate the research is taking place in large shielded rooms intended to protect against electromagnetic energy leaks.

According to the Post, the NSA expects to have some “building blocks” by the end of September.