The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is attempting to develop a computer that could ultimately break most encryption programs, whether they are used to protect other nations' spying programs or consumers' bank accounts, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The report, which the newspaper said was based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, comes amid continuing controversy over the spy agency's program to collect the phone records and Internet communications of private citizens.
In its report on Thursday, The Washington Post said that the NSA is trying to develop a so-called quantum computer that could be used to break encryption codes used to cloak sensitive information.
Such a computer, which would be able to perform several calculations at once instead of in a single stream, would have implications for such fields as medicine, the newspaper reported, and would take years to develop.
The research is part of a $79.7 million research program called Penetrating Hard Targets. Other nongovernmental researchers are also trying to develop quantum computers, and it is not clear whether the NSA program lags behind the private efforts or is ahead of them.
Some technology companies such as Google and Yahoo have said in recent weeks that they were stepping up efforts to encrypt their communications after reports that the NSA had been able to break or circumvent many of the current encryption standards.
But experts cited by The Washington Post said it was unlikely that the NSA would be close to creating such a machine without the scientific community being aware of it.
"It seems improbable that the NSA could be that far ahead of the open world without anybody knowing it," Scott Aaronson, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the newspaper.
Snowden, living in Russia under temporary asylum, last year leaked documents he collected while working for the NSA. The United States has charged him with espionage, and more charges could follow.
His disclosures have sparked a debate over how much leeway to give the U.S. government in gathering information for reasons of national security, and have prompted numerous lawsuits.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the NSA's collection of phone call records is legal, while another judge earlier in December questioned the program's constitutionality. The issue is now more likely to move before the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Guardian said that the U.S. government should grant Snowden clemency or a plea bargain, given the public value of revelations over the NSA's vast spying programs.