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indicate the name or nature of the occupant. Eventually, to further hide
its connection to NSA, the Research Institute's name was changed to the
Communications and Computing Center. Specializing in such esoteric
codebreaking and eavesdropping disciplines as cryptomathematics,
cryptocomputing, speech research, and special signals processing
techniques, the IDA-C3I, as it is sometimes known, received $34 million
in funding in 1994 and employed a technical staff of 149.
In addition to the Supercomputer Research Center, NSA also has a
Laboratory for Physical Sciences (LPS), which is part of the agency's
Directorate of Technology. Like the NSA Research Institute, LPS was born
in the 1950s, when the NSA's Scientific Advisory Board recommended
that the agency establish a "window on the world of academia and
academic research in the physical sciences." As a result, the agency
collaborated with the University of Maryland to create the LPS, with
quarters built adjacent to the school's College Park campus.
In 1992 the LPS moved into a new, nondescript 63,500-square-foot
building on Greenmead Drive in College Park. Leased from the university
for $480,000 a year, the facility, near a Moose lodge, draws little
attention and does not appear in the campus telephone directory. "We
don't know what they do there," said the administrator of the veterinary
center next door.
The lab was built at a cost of $10.9 million; its ultra-advanced
technology is designed to fast-forward NSA's ability to eavesdrop. Using
magnetic microscopy, scientists are able to study the minute tracks on
magnetic tape and greatly increase data density, thus enabling intercept
operators to pack ever more conversations into their recorders.
Increasing computer speed is also critical. To achieve this acceleration,
the LPS contains a state-of-the-art molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) facility
to develop miniature lasers, optical amplifiers, and other components
made out of gallium arsenide.
But speed equals heat. Thus the LPS is also pushing the limits on
such technologies as the development of synthetic diamonds, which are
many times more efficient for heat conduction than copper and far less
expensive than real diamonds. For example, an integrated circuit
mounted on ordinary ceramic will turn a very warm 87 degrees
centigrade when its surroundings are at room temperature. One
mounted on synthetic diamonds, however, will reach only 54 degrees
centigrade, allowing NSA's codebreaking machines to be relatively cool as
well as fast.


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Speed not only equals heat, it also equals massive demand for data
storage. Increasing use of space-eating multimedia files compounds the
problem, as does the need to make the information available to an ever
larger group of customers. One solution was Project Oceanarium, which
for the first time automated the storage of NSA's masses of multimedia
Sigint reports.
At the same time, Oceanarium modernized the way in which reports
were retrieved and distributed. Where once each spy agency jealously
guarded its individual intelligence files behind thick fortresses, today the
buzz phrase is "sharable databases." Through Oceanarium, NSA's dark
secrets can now be retrieved not only over its own internal intranet,
Webworld, but throughout the intelligence community via highly
classified programs such as Intelink.
Because the breadth and depth of NSA's data storage sea is finite,
scientists are turning to newer ways to narrow the rivers of information
emptying into it. Among the most promising are microscopic magnets,
only one molecule in size. Scientists at Xerox believe that such a magnet,
made of a special combination of manganese, oxygen, carbon, and
hydrogen, may be able to pack data thousands or even millions of times
more densely than today's systems of memory storage. Using these
molecule-sized magnets, experts believe, it may someday be possible to
store hundreds of gigabytes of data”millions of typed pages”on an area
no larger than the head of a pin.
By 2001, NSA's tape and disk storage capacity approached a density
of ten gigabytes per square inch”the equivalent of more than half a
million typed, double-spaced pages. But the closer data are packed, the
harder they are to erase and the more chance that telltale secrets will
remain behind on reused media. Therefore, another key area of research
at NSA's LPS is exploring the microscopic properties of data storage and
erasure to find more effective ways to rid used tapes and hard drives of
all their old secrets. According to computer expert Simson Garfinkel, tiny
pieces of a hard drive can still contain sizable amounts of information.
For instance, a 1/16-inch-square piece of a six-gigabyte hard drive can
hold 750,000 bytes”enough to fill a 300-page book. "A spy could remove
a hard disk, grind it up, and smuggle out the data in little pieces like
pocket lint," said Garfinkel. To solve the problem, NSA developed a drive-
controlled disk sanitization device, which attaches to the head disk
assembly and can completely eradicate the sensitive information used on
disks and drives.
Inside NSA's Supercomputer Research Center, the secret race for the
fastest computer seems almost unworldly. In 1994 and 1995 NSA
scientists participated in a series of meetings devoted to exploring the
feasibility of a great leap forward in computer technology. The goal was to
advance from billions, past trillions, to more than a quadrillion


507
operations a second”pentaflop speed”within two decades.
Among the ideas developed by NSA for achieving speeds of over a
quadrillion (1015) mathematical operations a second was the placement
of processors in the middle of memory chips. Processor-in-memory chips,
or PIMs, have the advantage of reducing the time it normally takes for
electronic signals to travel from the processors to the separate memory
chips. These PIM chips are now among the products manufactured by
the agency's Special Processing Lab.
By 2001, the SRC had long since broken the teraflop barrier and was
approaching petaflop speeds”at which point time is measured in
femtoseconds, the shortest events known to science. With such
extraordinary speed, a machine would be capable of pounding a stream
of intercepted, enciphered text with a quadrillion”a million billion”
possible solutions in the time it takes to wink. Original estimates by
scientists were that the outside world would reach that point sometime
around 2010, but IBM intends to cut the wait in half with a mega-
supercomputer dubbed Blue Gene.
Over five years, between 2000 and 2005, the company plans to build
the fastest computer on earth”500 times faster than anything currently
in existence. "It will suck down every spare watt of electricity and throw
off so much heat that a gas turbine the size of a jet engine is required to
cool it off," said one report. According to the company, the computer
would be about forty times more powerful than the aggregate power of
the forty fastest supercomputers in the world today”or 2 million times
more powerful than the fastest desktop in existence.
The ultimate goal of Blue Gene is to solve a puzzle of a different sort
from those at NSA”although NSA may also secretly be a customer. Blue
Gene's singular objective is to try and model the way a human protein
folds into a particular shape. Because proteins are the molecular
workhorses of the human body, it is essential to discover their molecular
properties. In a sense, Blue Gene is like NSA's old RAMs, which were
designed to attack one specific encryption system.
When completed, Blue Gene will consist of sixty-four computing
towers standing six feet high and covering an area forty feet by forty feet.
Inside will be a mind-boggling one million processors. The target speed is
a petaflop.
When NSA crosses the petaflop threshold, if it hasn't already, it is
unlikely that the rest of the world will know. By 2005 the SRC, with
years of secret, highly specialized development accumulated, will likely
be working with computers operating at exaflop speeds”a quintillion
operations a second”and pushing for zettaflop and even yottaflop
machines, capable of a septillion (102*) operations every time a second
hand jumps. Beyond yottaflop, numbers have not yet been named. "It is


508
the greatest play box in the world," marveled one agency veteran of the
NSA's technology capability. "They've got one of everything."
Operating in the exaflop-and-above world will be almost
unimaginable. The key will be miniaturization, an area in which NSA has
been pushing the theoretical envelope. By the mid-1990s, NSA's Special
Processing Laboratory had reduced the size of a transistor so much that
seventy of them would fit on the cross section of a human hair. NSA is
also attempting to develop a new generation of computer chips by
bombarding light-sensitive material with ions to etch out microscopic
electronic circuit designs. Using ion beams instead of traditional light in
the process provides the potential for building far smaller, more complex,
more efficient chips.
In the late 1990s NSA reached a breakthrough when it was able to
shrink a supercomputer to the size of a home refrigerator-freezer
combination. Eventually the machine was pared down to the size of a
small suitcase, yet its speed was increased by 10 percent. In 1999, a
joint NSA and DARPA program demonstrated that portions of a
supercomputer could be engineered to fit into a cube six inches on a
side”small enough to fit into a coat pocket. The circuitry was made of
diamond-based multichip modules and cooled by aerosol spray to remove
the 2,500 watts of heat from the system.
But to reach exaflop speed, computer parts”or even computers
themselves”may have to be shrunk to the size of atoms, or even of
subatomic particles. At the SRC, scientists looking for new and faster
ways to break into encryption systems have turned to quantum
computing. This involves studying interactions in the microscopic world
of atomic structures and looking for ways to harness individual atoms to
perform a variety of different tasks, thereby speeding up computer
operations to an unthinkable scale.
NSA has had a strong interest in quantum computing as far back as
1994, when Peter Shor, a mathematician at Bell Laboratories, which has
long had a close and secret relationship with the agency, discovered the
codebreaking advantages of the new science. Since then, NSA has spent
about $4 million a year to fund research at various universities, and put
additional money into studies at government laboratories.
Operated at top speed, a quantum computer could be used to uncover
pairs of enormously large prime numbers, which are the "passwords" for
many encryption systems. The largest number that ordinary
supercomputers have been able to factor is about 140 digits long. But
according to another Bell Labs scientist, Lov K. Grover, using quantum
computing, 140-digit-long numbers could be factored a billion times
faster than is currently possible. "On paper, at least," said Glover, "the
prospects are stunning: ... a search engine that could examine every



509
nook and cranny of the Internet in half an hour; a 'brute-force' decoder
that could unscramble a DES [Data Encryption Standard”the
encryption standard used by banks and most businesses] transmission
in five minutes."
A quantum computer could also be used to speed through
unfathomable numbers of intercepted communications”a "scan" in NSA-
speak”searching for a single keyword, a phrase, or even, with luck, a
"bust." Long the secret leading to many of NSA's past codebreaking
successes, a bust is an abnormality”sometimes very subtle”in a
target's cryptographic system. For example, it may be an error in a
Russian encryption program, or a faulty piece of hardware, or a sloppy
transmission procedure. Once such a hairline crack is discovered, NSA
code-breakers, using a massive amount of computer power in what is
known as a brute force attack, can sometimes chisel away enough of the
system to expose a golden vein of secret communications.
A breakthrough into quantum computing came in April 1998, when
researchers at MIT, IBM, the University of California at Berkeley, and the
University of Oxford in England announced they had succeeded in
building the first working quantum computers. The processor consisted
of a witches' brew of hydrogen and chlorine atoms in chloroform. Digital
switches were shrunk down to the smallest unit of information, known
as a quantum bit, or qubit. Where once a traditional computer bit would
have to be either, for example, 0 or 1, a qubit could be both
simultaneously. Instead of just black or white, a qubit could become all
the colors of the rainbow.
According to John Markoff, who has long followed the issue for the
New York Times, another milestone came in July 1999. That was when
researchers at Hewlett-Packard and the University of California at Los
Angeles announced that they had succeeded in creating rudimentary
electronic logic gates”one of the basic components of computing” only
a single molecule thick. Four months later, scientists at Hewlett-Packard
reported they had crossed another key threshold by creating rows of
ultramicroscopic conductive wires less than a dozen atoms across.
Translated into practical terms, a quantum computer could thus
perform many calculations simultaneously, resulting in a hyperincrease
in speed. Now, instead of a supercomputer attempting to open a complex
cipher system”or lock”by trying a quadrillion different keys one after
another, a quantum computer will be able to try all quadrillion keys
simultaneously. Physicists speculated that such machines may one day
prove thousands or even millions of times faster than the most powerful
supercomputer available today.
The discovery was greeted with excitement by the codebreakers in
Crypto City. "It looked for a long time like a solution without a problem,"



510
said NSA's Keith Miller. At Los Alamos, where NSA is secretly funding
research into the new science, quantum team leader Richard J. Hughes
added: "This is an important step. What's intriguing is that they've now
demonstrated the simplest possible algorithm on a quantum computer."
Also heavily involved in molecular-scale electronics, known as
moletronics, is DARPA, long NSA's partner in pushing computing past
the threshold. Scientists working on one DARPA program recently
speculated that it may soon be possible to fashion tiny switches, or
transistors, from tiny clusters of molecules only a single layer deep. Such
an advance, they believe, may lead to computers that would be 100
billion times as fast as today's fastest PCs. According to James Tour, a
professor of chemistry at Rice University who is working on molecular-
scale research, "A single molecular computer could conceivably have
more transistors than all of the transistors in all of the computers in the
world today."
On the other side of the city, however, the codemakers welcomed the
news with considerable apprehension. They were worried about the
potential threat to NSA's powerful cipher systems if a foreign nation
discovered a way to harness the power and speed of quantum computing
before the United States had developed defenses against it. By 1999, for
example, Japan's NEC had made considerable progress with the
development of a solid-state device that could function as a qubit. "We
have made a big step by showing the possibility of integrating quantum
gates using solid-state devices," said NEC's Jun'ichi Sone. "It takes one
trillion years to factorize a two-hundred-digit number with present
supercomputers," he said. "But it would take only one hour or less with a
quantum computer."
As intriguing as quantum computing is, perhaps the most interesting
idea on how to reach exaspeed and beyond came out of the series of
"great leap forward" meetings in which the NSA took part in the mid-
1990s. The computer of the future”already with a circulatory system of
cool, bubbling Fluorinert, an artificial blood plasma”may be constructed
partly out of mechanical parts and partly out of living parts.
"I don't think we can really build a machine that fills room after room
after room and costs an equivalent number of dollars," said Seymour
Cray, one of those at the meetings. "We have to make something roughly
the size of our present machines but with a thousand times the
components." One answer to scaling down to the nanometer, according
to Cray, was to fabricate computing devices out of biological entities. At
the same time, other biological processes could be used to manufacture
nonbiological devices”for example, bacteria could be bioengineered to

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