Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Our Friends at the NSA

Last weekend the movie Enemy of the State was shown on network television in the US. This is a pretty good thriller about a rogue NSA official using the resources of the NSA to get back some evidence from a lawyer innocently tangled up in this affair.

What do we know about the National Security Agency? While they don't have the best American mathematicians, who typically go to universities, they have a large collection of very good mathematicians. While they are free to read the same papers I read, we hear about very little of their work. They must have some exciting work in algorithms and complexity I can only dream about. Perhaps they have an efficient factoring algorithm or a working quantum computer in their basement. Unlikely, but possible.

Occasionally I meet NSA scientists at conferences, particularly those meetings devoted to quantum computation. "The NSA is much more interested in quantum computing than quantum cryptography," one such scientist told me. This surprised me since quantum cryptography seems much more likely to have real-world applications than quantum computers, both in theory and in practice. "The real issue is how long our current codes will remain unbreakable. We need to know if our the information currently encrypted will remain safe for 20 or 50 years."

So is Enemy of the State realistic? "Not at all," a different NSA employee told me at a quantum workshop shortly after the movie came out. "We work in boring cubicles, not the sleek offices depicted in the movie." Offices?! What about the satellites that can track people on the ground in real time? "No comment."

No comments:

Post a Comment