In this month's issue of Physics World, Jon Cartwright explains how the revelation that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is developing quantum computers has renewed interest and sparked debate on just how far ahead they are of the world's major labs looking to develop the same technology.
In 2006 the NSA openly announced a partnership with two US institutions to develop quantum computers. However, according to documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and published last month by the Washington Post, the NSA also wishes to develop the technology so that it is capable of breaking modern Internet security.
The $79.7m project, dubbed "Penetrating Hard Targets", could be made possible by the extraordinary potential of quantum computers to factorize large numbers in a short space of time, quickly deciphering encryption keys that are used to protect sensitive information.
For the NSA, this could mean deciphering banking transactions, private messages and government files; however, many physicists are not surprised and believe this is exactly the type of technology that the NSA is expected to develop.
Speaking to Physics World, Raymond Laflamme, a leading quantum information theorist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said "If you put my level of surprise on a scale from zero to 10, where 10 is very, very surprised, my answer would be zero."