Pin It

Edward Snowden — the ex-government contractor who exposed the NSA’s efforts to spy on the web’s most popular services — offers a simple answer to this sweeping online surveillance campaign. The way to combat NSA eavesdropping, he says, is to encrypt data as it moves across the wire.

That’s what he told the tech heads at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas last week, appearing by way of a video feed streamed across the net from Russia, where he’s been granted temporary asylum from the U.S. government. Properly implemented, he explained, today’s encryption techniques work: The NSA has no way of cracking them. The onus is on the tech world to actually use them. “You guys who are in the room now are all the firefighters,” he said. “And we need you to help fix this.”

The good news is that the giants of the net — including Google and Microsoft — are already working to encrypt data, not only as it moves across the public internet but as it travels through private lines that run between the massive data centers that underpin their many web services. According to leaked government documents, the NSA has ways of tapping these lines, opening a backdoor to the internet that even those at the heart of the tech world hadn’t thought about. If the Googles and the Microsofts encrypt the data moving between their computing facilities, they can go a long way towards answering Snowden’s call to arms.

But there are other clouds on the horizon. Most notably: What happens if someone does crack current encryption techniques? That isn’t likely to happen any time soon, but in the long term, it’s a real threat — especially when you consider that researchers are slowly moving towards the creation of a quantum computer.

Based on the seemingly fantastical but very real properties of quantum mechanics — the physics of very small things — a quantum computer would have the power to instantly perform mathematical calculations that would take years with classical machines, and that could threaten today’s crypto. The NSA has funded quantum computer projects for more than a decade, and recently, leaked documents revealed that the agency is “pursuing more than just basic, unclassified research,” secretly working on a quantum computer that could be a first step towards machines that could “attack high-grade public key encryption systems.” If the Googles of the world are intent on protecting our data from prying eyes, they must also explore a new breed of encryption that can stand up to quantum computing.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if companies like Google are looking into this — especially given what we know about how their systems have been compromised,” says Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley whose work has spanned cryptography and quantum physics. “They really should be looking.”

To read more, click here.